One year ago, the center of Minsk was teaming with people protesting stolen presidential elections and asserting their voices matter. On that first evening, the mood was festive: women in bright summer dresses, some wearing heels, as if on their way to the theater. Students draped in white-red-and-white Belarusian nationalist flags singing, “Change, we want change!” Hipsters sipping cold drinks. A group of men patiently waiting for the green light to cross the street and join friends on the other side. Thousands clapping and chanting, “Freedom! Long live Belarus.”
Then, police moved in with flash grenades, rubber bullets, and truncheons. I remember watching it all in horror, shuddering at the violence and brutality against people whose only “crime” was gathering peacefully and daring to speak out.
Over the next four days, close to 7,000 were arbitrarily arrested, thrown into police vehicles like logs, on top of one another, abused at police stations, denied food and water, held for days in suffocating overcrowded cells. Hundreds were beaten, tortured, and subjected to other degrading punishments. Outraged, people continued mass protests through the autumn.
To stifle these voices, the government unleashed a war on civil society. Today, at least 608 people are behind bars on bogus tax, mass rioting, and other charges. Many others served 10 to 15 days in detention or suffered vicious harassment and threats solely for wearing or using the white-red-and-white stripe pattern, singing protest songs, or viewing opposition media on their phones.
The authorities jailed at least 27 media workers over their reporting and changed the country’s media legislation to make it virtually impossible for journalists to report on public protests. At least 17 lawyers have been disbarred in retaliation for speaking out or assisting clients in politically motivated cases. In July, the government moved to “purge” the country of leading civil society groups, at least 53 independent organizations are already under “liquidation procedure” and some of the most prominent Belarusian human rights activists are in jail awaiting trial on unclear charges.
Belarusian rights defenders, journalists, lawyers, and the like are continuing their work in different formats in-country, and in exile. The international community needs to stand in solidarity with them, counter the government’s attempts to eviscerate civil society, provide unwavering, long-term support to Belarusian groups and activists, and ensure accountability for the egregious abuses by the authorities.