Belarus: end crackdown on freedom of expression and peaceful protests

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English PEN joins PEN International in urging the Belarusian authorities to immediately release anyone arrested during peaceful protests and to halt police violence, after peaceful rallies were violently dispersed across the country.

Waves of protests have taken place in Belarus since mid-February against the so-called ‘social parasite law’, which imposed a tax on Belarusians working less than six months a year. Following a public outcry, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka suspended the implementation of the decree for a year but refused to withdraw it, spurring further protests.

On 25 March, the Belarusian authorities violently cracked down on peaceful demonstrators who had gathered to mark the country’s Freedom Day. According to national and international human rights groups, police used excessive force and detained hundreds of protesters, as well as scores of journalists and human rights observers. The internet was also shut down across the country.

Hanna Yankuta, Vice President of the Belarusian PEN Centre, said:

We are deeply concerned by continuous reports of arrests of writers, journalists and booksellers across Belarus. Some said they were severely beaten and denied access to lawyers. We urge the Belarusian authorities to investigate these allegations and ensure that no one is being detained for peacefully expressing their views.

Jennifer Clement, PEN International President, said:

Belarus is seeing its biggest protests in years, yet instead of allowing people to peacefully protest the Belarusian authorities seem intent on suppressing dissent. This is unacceptable. Anyone arrested for daring to speak out must be immediately released.

Kätlin Kaldmaa, PEN International Secretary, said:

There is no justification for violently storming a peaceful protest. The actions of the Belarusian security forces must be independently and impartially investigated and those found responsible for excessive use of force must be brought to justice.

Since mid-February, several people have been sentenced to up to 15 days of administrative detention for participating in unauthorised gatherings across the country. Others have received heavy fines.

On 23 March, Belarus’ State Security Agency announced that 26 people had been arrested on charges of ‘aiming to participate in mass riots’ under Article 293 of the Belarusian Criminal Code, which carries up to three years in prison.

Of particular concern to English PEN is playwright and actor with the celebrated Belarus Free Theatre Siarhei Kvachonak, who was sentenced to ten days imprisonment on 27 March, reportedly on charges of ‘hooliganism, shouting, and using strong language’. Meanwhile, Kvachonak’s colleague, the actor and playwright Yana Rusakevich, has been hospitalised with a temporal bone break and concussion.

PEN calls on the Belarusian authorities to urgently uphold the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly guaranteed under Articles 19 and 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Belarus is a state party.

For additional information, please visit the PEN International website.

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