The anti-government protests in Belarus over the last two years may have died down, but the country remains marred by violent repression and the clamping down on dissidents.
In the spring of 2022, Alexander Lukashenko’s regime began cracking down on the so-called railway partisans — a group united in their opposition to the war in Ukraine and Lukashenko’s role in it — who began sabotaging the infrastructure meant to supply the Russian army in its unlawful fight against a free and democratic Ukraine.
In response, the regime conducted raids to catch and arrest these grassroots operatives. During one raid, on March 30, riot police caught and arrested a group of men, one of whom, Vitaly Melnik, was shot in the legs. The footage of the skirmish was later posted to pro-government social media accounts. In late December, Melnik was sentenced to 16 years in prison for, among other things, “acts of terrorism” and insulting Lukashenko. Other “partisans” in his group were also sentenced to lengthy prison sentences.
In a blatant effort to tighten laws on any anti-government activity — or any activity perceived as such — authorities in July 2022 began changing the country’s criminal legislation. They introduced a special proceeding for holding trials in absentia for Belarusians who participated in “extremist activity” and now live abroad. The move here is obvious: Minsk is trying to exert its repressive power beyond Belarusian borders to target those who’ve fled the country.
This new measure directly affected one of the Human Rights Foundation (HRF)’s Freedom Fellows, Volya Vysotskaia, a Belarusian human rights activist.
On September 27, the Investigative Committee of the Republic of Belarus posted a list of five people to be tried in absentia for alleged “exasperation of enmity and social disagreement.” Vysotskaia was the editor of “Black Book of Belarus,” a telegram channel dedicated to exposing the identities of Belarusian government agents involved in human rights abuses.
Volya was never notified of the case opened against her, as the legislation states that the publication of information about the case on official websites is sufficient to “notify” the accused. She was subsequently added to a list of people related to terrorist activities by the Belarusian KGB, which now includes more than 200 people.
What’s more, Volya never had the chance to properly study the documents pertaining to her own trial. The new legislation prohibits the accused from accessing such material; only the defendant’s lawyer is given sole access. But in Volya’s case, a lawyer she had never met was assigned to her case without her acknowledgment or consent.
That lawyer failed to communicate with her or even have a phone call. Volya’s request to join the trial remotely was also rejected by the court, which insisted she appears in person.
We know why: Lukashenko’s government has no intention of conducting a fair trial.
If convicted, Volya will lose her Belarusian citizenship, further complicating her stay abroad, which, of course, is part of the goal: forcing exiled Belarusians to return to a country that imprisons citizens for speaking out against the government and where torture is routinely on the table.
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].