Repressions have continued in Belarus for over three and a half years since the start of the 2020 election campaign. Unfortunately, the situation has worsened significantly. Every day, arbitrary detentions persist nationwide. Belarusians face daily searches, smartphone checks, ill-treatment during detention, and terrible conditions in places of detention. They are also subjected to beatings and torture. At least 1,430 political prisoners are currently in custody. Among them are mothers of many children, pensioners, students, doctors, human rights activists, journalists, teachers, and other representatives of the Belarusian society. Viasna provides a review of the situation with political prisoners in 2023.
As of 4 January 2024, there are 1,430 political prisoners in Belarus. The majority consists of men, totaling 1,263 people. Additionally, there are 167 women currently in custody.
As of the end of 2023, there were at least 27 families among political prisoners who were either convicted or awaiting trial in custody. They include incarcerated spouses and parents along with their children.
As of December 2023, nine political prisoners in the country turned 18 behind bars. Besides them, Mikita Brui, a 17-year-old great-grandson of Belarusian poet Yakub Kolas, is now behind bars, sentenced to three years in prison. The teen has already started serving time in a juvenile correctional facility.
At the moment, political prisoner list includes:
- 152 cultural figures;
- 32 media representatives;
- 16 doctors;
- 6 lawyers;
- 6 human rights defenders.
Currently, five Viasna human rights defenders are being held in correctional facilities, including Viasna chairman Ales Bialiatski, his deputy Valiantsin Stefanovich, lawyer Uladzimir Labkovich, Viasna volunteer service coordinator Marfa Rabkova, and volunteer Andrei Chapiuk. All of them have been sentenced to long terms.
There are at least 48 retired people among political prisoners — twice as many as in 2022. Natallia Taran, who is 74 years old, remains the oldest of them. She was sentenced to three and a half years in prison under defamatory articles of the Criminal Code.
At least 42 people with disabilities or serious illnesses are enduring inhuman detention conditions. Thus, at least eight political prisoners suffer from cancer. Some were taken into custody already suffering from cancer, and some were diagnosed while in detention. In both cases, poor-quality and untimely medical care worsens people’s health conditions. As a result, the appointed terms of imprisonment may become life sentences for them.
Mikalai Klimovich, a 61-year-old political prisoner, blogger, and public activist from Pinsk, died in Vitsebsk Correctional Facility No. 3 in May 2023. He was sentenced to a year in prison for his reaction to a caricature of Lukashenka in Odnoklassniki social media. Mikalai had a group II disability caused by a cardiac disease. He experienced a stroke and underwent complex heart surgery. Despite this, the Pinsk court sentenced him to imprisonment.
On the night of July 11, 57-year-old political prisoner Ales Pushkin died in intensive care. MOST media, citing its sources, reported that Ales had a perforated ulcer and did not receive timely treatment while in prison. The artist was brought to the hospital unconscious on July 11, and his heart stopped on the operating table.
Human rights activists report that 771 individuals are serving their sentences for political reasons in correctional facilities, 178 in open-type correctional facilities, 54 in prison, 7 in juvenile correctional facilities, and 2 in a mental health center.
Several other political prisoners were serving administrative detention in temporary detention centers. The whereabouts of at least 273 political prisoners are not exactly known to Viasna human rights defenders.
Since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Belarusians have actively demonstrated an anti-war stance. They have organized marches and small protests, damaged railway equipment to impede the movement of Russian military equipment, aided in the information war, and fought on the side of Ukraine.
People in our country are still being persecuted and held administratively liable for openly supporting Ukraine. In total, at least 33 political prisoners were convicted in 2023 for demonstrating an anti-war position. They were all imprisoned on criminal charges.
Political prisoners continue to face pressure even after being transferred to correctional institutions to serve their sentences. The administration of penitentiaries frequently disciplines prisoners for trivial reasons, leading to the deprivation of calls, care packages, and visits, or placement in punishment cells and secure housing units.
This becomes the basis for increased punishment: transfer to high-security prisons or the initiation of a criminal case for persistent defiance of prison administration orders.
According to Viasna, as of 31 December 2023, at least 66 political prisoners had been transferred to high-security prisons and new criminal cases had been opened against another 32.
Since the first convictions in politically motivated criminal cases, at least 745 political prisoners have completed their sentences and been released.
At least 1,430 political prisoners saw in the New Year behind bars. 185 of them spent the holiday without their families and relatives for the fourth time. These political prisoners have been held in custody for almost three and a half years.