Prosecution and detention of artists and cultural rights defenders in Belarus

23 October 2020


On 7 October 2020, Freemuse addressed the letter to Belarus authorities and international policy interlocutors on prosecution and detention of artists and cultural rights defenders.


Freemuse is concerned about the illegitimate restrictions of freedom of artistic freedom and detentions of cultural rights defenders during the crackdown of protests in Belarus.

Research from Belarussian cultural rights organisation Our House states that there have been at least 73 cases of artistic freedom violations in Belarus. Of these cases, the Belarusian government initiated at least 20 criminal proceedings against art activists and cultural rights defenders, in particular against YouTube bloggers and administrators of social networks. A number of artists have seen administrative
prosecutions have often turned into criminal ones and at present, 18 of the cultural rights defenders have been imprisoned.

Further, the total number of fines that artists and cultural rights defenders in Belarus have been subject to for their freedom of expression amounts to more than 477 basic units (12,879 Belarusian rubles or 4,770 euros).

Since the 9 August 2020 re-election of Belarussian President Lukashenko, tensions in the country have reached new heights, with up to 200,000 people protesting since the recent election which was declared “neither free nor fair” by the Council of Europe. Artistic freedom has been caught in the crossfires of this increasingly oppressive regime and violent response, with Freemuse research indicating dozens of arrests of artists and activists both in the lead up to and after the recent election.

This includes the arrests (and since release) of two theatre directors from Belarus Free Theatre – Svetlana Sugako and Nadezhda Brodskaya – and the dismissal of theatre director Pavel Latushko for his support of the protests. Freemuse is concerned at the increase of these incidents, and the already fragile climate for freedom of expression prior to the country’s election, which has since dramatically

Belarusian opposition leader and musician Maria Kolesnikova was detained in Belarus after tearing her passport and refusing to leave the country on 7 September. Kolesnikova and two other opposition politicians, Anton Rodnenkov and Ivan Kravtsov, disappeared on the morning of 7 September, with bystanders reporting that the three individuals were kidnapped in the centre of Minsk. Belarus’ border committee later said that Kolesnikova was detained at the border with Ukraine on 8 September. Ukraine’s deputy interior minister Anton Gerashchenko said that this was a ‘forced expulsion’ from Belarus after claiming that Kolesnikova did not have the right documents to leave Belarus.

On the same day, multimedia artist Nadya Sayapina (Nadezhda) was sentenced to 15 days in prison for her participation in a peaceful protest performance held on 15 August in Minsk. Sayapina was arrested on 7 September from her apartment and was unable to access her mobile phone throughout the day. The artist was prosecuted by judge Elena Zhukovich in a Skype trial held before the Court of Saviecki District of Minsk for her alleged participation in an artist protest on the issue of torturing of political prisoners in the aftermath of the 9 August elections.

On 10 August 2020, performance artist Alexei Kuzmich was arrested at his house after hosting an artistic performance on 9 August. Kuzmich was detained for three days and afterwards taken by ambulance to a hospital with three other protesters to be treated for wounds obtained during beatings by police officers in custody. In fear of being re-arrested, Kuzmich announced via Facebook that had fled to Ukraine on 1 September.

Cultural rights defenders in Belarus are increasingly pushing the boundaries that transcend social norms in the country and are consequently embodying the collective consciences of those outside the parameters of governmental discourses. This has contributed to President Lukashenko’s regime systematically silencing voices that express opposition opinions and individuals with intersecting identities experience additional compounding limitations.

The climate for artistic freedom in Belarus has been steadily decreasing since Lukashenko first became President in Belarus in 1994, with political pressure and legislative action creating a shrinking environment for expression and engagement with arts and culture. Decree No. 257 ‘On Certain Issues of Organizing and Holding Cultural and Spectacular Events’ has limited public access to cultural events and led to the embedding of politics in the independent media and the culture sector. The government also secured a state monopoly over information on social, political and economic affairs through the 2008 media law, thus limiting the space for civil society to perform and engage in Belarus.

Authorities in Belarus have the responsibility to respect the human right to free expression and the right to protest including of artists and those challenging the election process and result. The prosecution and detentions of artists and cultural rights defenders in Belarus is in violation of the countries national and international commitments to artistic freedom. Specifically, Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, which were both ratified by the authorities in November 1973.

Freemuse urges you to call upon the authorities in Belarus to immediately release all artists detained and imprisoned for their creative and political expressions, and encourage the Lukashenko government to respect and take appropriate actions based on international human rights obligations.

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