25 May 2021 – The Belarusian authorities must urgently end their relentless crackdown on independent and critical voices, PEN said today, as attacks against writers, journalists and cultural workers in Belarus continue unabated.
On 23 May, Roman Protasevich, blogger and former editor of the popular opposition Telegram channel NEXTA, was detained by Belarusian police after his Lithuania-bound flight was diverted to Minsk National Airport. Protasevich was flying back from an economic conference in Greece with the Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, to Vilnius, Lithuania, where he has been living in exile. According to BelTA, Belarus’s official news agency, the Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko personally gave the order to land the passenger jet following a bomb threat. No bomb was found on board.
Philippe Sands, President of English PEN, said:
‘This is an act of multiple criminalities, an unprecedented international crime, the echoes of which threatens journalists everywhere. It will surely lead to the chilling of free expression globally and is destructive of the rule of law. We call for the immediate release of Roman Protasevich and his partner Sofia Sapega and of all journalists and political prisoners in detention in Belarus’
Roman Protasevich is an outspoken critic of Lukashenko, whose re-election in August 2020 following flawed elections sparked mass protests that have led to an unprecedented number of arrests, detentions and police beatings. In a video released on 24 May, Protasevich denied reports that he had suffered health problems since his arrest and said that he was ‘confessing’ to inciting mass riots, for which he could face up to 15 years in prison. He is reportedly being held in Detention Center No. 1 in Minsk. The KGB – Belarus’s security agency – placed his name on a list of terrorists, for which he could face the death penalty. His arrest drew international condemnation, with the EU swiftly agreeing to impose sectoral sanctions on Belarus and to bar EU airlines from flying over the country.
Salil Tripathi, Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee, said:
‘The Belarusian act is outrageous, criminal, reckless, and dangerous. It deserves the strongest condemnation. It is beyond all norms to deploy such means to go after a journalist. It is clear that the Lukashenko administration will stop at nothing in silencing dissent. The extraordinary measures his government has taken to arrest pro-opposition blogger Roman Protasevich beggar belief. We urgently call for his immediate and unconditional release, and for all charges against him to be dropped. Protasevich’s shocking arrest not only sends a chilling message to the independent voices in Belarus, but it also sets an extremely worrying precedent to those living in exile. It also rewrites international civil aviation protocols as well as international law. The international community must stand firmly united in opposing this act of hijacking by the state. The Belarusian authorities must end their escalating assault on freedom of expression at once, and release all those wrongfully imprisoned’
Roman Protasevich’s arrest is the latest in a series of escalating attacks against freedom of expression in Belarus. On 18 May, the Ministry of Information blocked access to TUT.BY, one of the country’s leading independent online media outlets, while officers of the Financial Investigations Department raided its offices and interrogated several of its journalists as part of a criminal investigation into alleged ‘grand tax evasion’ by TUT.BY’s management team.
Scores of writers, journalists and cultural workers have been facing arbitrary arrests, detentions, dismissals and acts of censorship in recent months, in an apparent effort to suppress dissent and punish those who dare to speak out against abuses of fundamental rights. PEN International calls on the Belarusian authorities to immediately end their mounting assault on the cultural sphere.
For more information about PEN’s work on Belarus, please click here.