Meet HRF Freedom Fellow Volya Vysotskaia, a Belarusian human rights activist who exposes repression and torture by state officials.
Vysotskaia is currently part of the 2022 Freedom Fellowship, a one-year program that provides hands-on, expert mentorship across seven critical areas: leadership, movement-building, organizing, fundraising, media, mental health, and digital security.
On September 27, the Investigative Committee of the Republic of Belarus announced that five people would be tried in absentia — Vysotskaia is one of them. She has since been denied information about the trial, and her request to appear virtually was rejected. Should she return to Belarus, a country where torture and inhuman treatment is routine, officials will likely detain her.
Learn more about Vysotskaia’s case in the exclusive interview below.
Q: Can you tell us about your activism protecting democracy in Belarus?
A: From August 2020 to October 2021, I was an editor of the Telegram channel, the “Black Book of Belarus.” Our work “de-anonymized” or identified law enforcement officers and other government authorities who committed human rights violations, hiding behind their high-power statuses. We published the pictures and personal data of riot police officers, prosecutors, judges, and other officials to hold them accountable for their repression of Belarusian citizens demanding democracy and freedom.
Q: What led to the criminalization of the Black Book of Belarus’ editors and readers?
A: In October 2020, a special service agent infiltrated our team and leaked information about members. Previously, he was part of the special operation that hijacked a Ryanair flight in May 2021 to imprison Sofia Sapega, another team member. After we uncovered the agent, my team and I were chased down in Vilnius, and dozens of people in the Telegram group were also imprisoned.
Q: What is unique about your criminal case?
A: The case brought against my four colleagues and me is the first trial in absentia in the country’s history. We have been accused of “exasperation of enmity” and “social disagreement,” as well as illegal actions relating to private life and personal data. The Belarusian KGB has also added us to the list of individuals engaging in “extremist activities.” Belarusian courts recognize almost all civil society organizations as extremists, but we will be the first to be tried and sentenced without the opportunity to defend ourselves.
Belarusian authorities are undoubtedly denying us the right to a fair trial. Notably, I was denied access to information about my criminal case, and I never met the lawyer assigned to me, nor did the lawyer ever respond to my calls.
Q: What is the scope of legal harassment against Belarusian pro-democracy activists in exile?
A: The Lukashenko government changed the criminal procedural law back in July and invented a special proceeding for trying in absentia those who are engaged in “anti-state activities,” and living in exile. The addendum of this new procedural law provides that defendants are no longer aware of the content of their cases. It is sufficient for the legislative body to post this information on official websites, which clearly violates Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
Q: What should the international community learn from your case?
A: The violations of the right to a fair trial, among other rights, didn’t start in Belarus with our case. It just brings back the attention of the international community to the fact that the repressions in Belarus haven’t stopped. They continue every day. The power, the judicial system, and the independence of Belarus with Lukashenko are fake. The regime represses and scares the Belarusians inside the country, and while the international community doesn’t react to the severe violations of human rights, the regime spreads its attention to those living in exile. Because silence allows them to do that.
The international community has to learn that there have to be efficient mechanisms for bringing perpetrators to trial until they destroy whole nations, as well as to guarantee the defense for the victims of violations. International justice can’t be built on the international ignorance of injustice. Being concerned doesn’t stop dictators.
The Freedom Fellowship is a unique, one-year program that gives human rights advocates, social entrepreneurs, and nonprofit leaders from challenging political environments the opportunity to increase the impact of their work. Through mentorship and hands-on training sessions, fellows develop critical skills and join a growing community of human rights activists.
If you are interested in learning more about or donating to the Freedom Fellowship, please contact Jhanisse Vaca-Daza at [email protected].