Founded in 1989 as part of the PEN movement, PEN Belarus have been at the forefront of conversations around freedom of expression in the country - often described as ‘Europe’s last dictatorship’ - for over 30 years.
There have been many challenging moments throughout their history and this year has been no exception. The months since the disputed Presidential election of August 2020 have seen the violent suppression of peaceful protests calling for the presidential election to be run again and the arrests of thousands of demonstrators, including members and employees of PEN Belarus.
‘We wanted to start a dialogue in society’
- Svetlana Alexievich, President, PEN Belarus (September 2020)
In the wake of the 2020 election, there has been a worrying crackdown on independent media in the country. Journalists attempting to cover the protests have been subject to detention, harassment and violence. Foreign journalists and those writing for international outlets have been stripped of their accreditation; others have been deported. Meanwhile, the authorities have blocked access to dozens of media websites and disrupted the circulation of print media.
Our colleagues at PEN Belarus have stayed active throughout these difficult times and despite the very real risk to themselves. Several members and employees of PEN Belarus – including poet and PEN Belarus secretary Hanna Komar; Uladzimir Liankievic – project manager, poet, and translator; and philosopher and PEN member Olga Shparaga – are among those who have been detained whilst participating in peaceful protests, and in violation of their rights to freedom of expression and association.
Following her release, Hanna Komar shared a moving message with supporters:
I felt guilty that nothing too horrible happened to me there, nothing close to as horrible as what happened to the people on the 9th, 10th, and 11th of August. Guilty that those my close to me wasted their resources on worrying for me and caring about me while nothing too bad was happening to me, except for the fact that I wasted 9 days of my life in prison.
And then I thought, what if nothing horrible happened to me actually thanks to all the people thinking and caring about me? What if they’d created a mental bubble protecting me? Then I owe you a life, my angels…
I look forward to replying to every message I received, each of them is precious for me, and my gratitude to all of you is as huge as the ocean!
I’ll keep on fighting, please keep supporting us.
In addition, Svetlana Alexievich, Nobel prize-winner and President of PEN Belarus, is facing charges in relation to her membership of the Coordination Council of Belarus. Fellow members have been detained or been forced to leave the country. In September 2020, Alexievich reported that she was being targeted at her home by unknown individuals: this led to an exceptional display of international solidarity, with diplomatic representatives from numerous countries joining her in her apartment to prevent her arrest.
In a statement published by PEN Belarus, and translated by Sasha Dugdale for PEN Transmissions, Alexievich describes the current situation in the country:
First they seized our country, and now they are seizing the best of us. But hundreds of others will come and fill the places of those who have been taken from our ranks. It is the whole country which has risen up, not just the Coordination Council. I want to say again what I have always said: that we were not attempting to start a coup. We did not want to split the country. We wanted to start a dialogue in society. Lukashenko has said he won’t speak ‘with the street’ – but the streets are filled with hundreds of thousands of people who come out to protest every Sunday, and every day. It isn’t the street, it is the nation.
In spite of the risks to their safety and liberty, PEN Belarus continue to work tirelessly, monitoring attacks on writers and artists and sharing information about developments on the ground with sister PEN centres and the international community.