Two years ago today, a group of international and Belarusian human rights organizations gathered to discuss how best to support our detained colleagues from the prominent Belarusian rights group Viasna.
At the time, seven Viasna members were behind bars on trumped-up criminal charges in reprisal for their courageous human rights work in Belarus. Many other Viasna activists and their family members were designated witnesses in criminal cases and faced interrogation and searches.
On September 17, 2021, we launched the #FreeViasna campaign.
Today, five members of the group remain behind bars on politically motivated charges. Ales Bialiatski, Viasna’s head and the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize for Peace co-laureate; Valiantsin Stefanovich, his deputy; Uladzimir Labkovich, the group’s lawyer; Maria (Marfa) Rabkova, volunteer network coordinator; and Andrey Chapiuk, volunteer, are serving prison sentences between six and fifteen years.
Since September 2021, the climate of fear in Belarus has only deteriorated, with politically motivated repression reaching new levels of cruelty.
There are currently over 1,500 Belarusian political prisoners on Viasna’s register, including other jailed rights defenders such as Nasta (Anastasia) Loika, well known for her work on migration and human rights. Authorities have effectively outlawed rights work in the country, equating it to extremist and subversive activities, and shutting down more than 900 nongovernmental organizations.
Jailed rights defenders and other political prisoners in Belarus face harassment from prison authorities, restrictions on visits and correspondence, solitary confinement, and inadequate healthcare.
Leanid Sudalenka, chairman of Viasna’s Homieĺ branch, and one of the initial seven detained Viasna activists, was recently released after serving his three-year sentence. He attested to unspeakably harsh prison conditions.
State repression against Viasna and others is not surprising. Belarusian authorities have hit human rights groups hard to try to create an informational vacuum around rights abuses they are perpetrating.
In Belarusian, “Viasna” means spring. When speaking at his show trial, Stefanovich said that prosecution of activists won’t end Viasna’s work. Instead, it will be carried on by new generations of rights defenders. “And in the end, winter will always be followed by spring,” he said.
Recalling his first weeks in detention, Sudalenka told me how Ales Bialiatski, not yet arrested, promised to fight for him. Now that Ales and other Belarusian rights defenders are behind bars, the least we can do is continue fighting for their freedom.