Belarusian Student Activist Sentenced to 15 Years in Prison Following Two-Year Detainment
In August 2020, President Alexander Lukashenko, the country’s first and only elected president since the establishment of the office in 1994 following the post-Soviet independence, was reinstated in an election cycle plagued with allegations of corruption and illegitimacy. The outcome was widely disputed following the Central Election Committee’s claim that Lukashenko had won 80 percent of the vote against his opponent, former English teacher Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. The Associated Press (AP), along with other news outlets, reported that election workers not only saw ballot fraud but were “pressured to falsify results in favor of Lukashenko.”
Hundreds of thousands of protestors participated in mass demonstrations in Minsk and other major cities across the country once the sixth term of Lukashenko’s presidency was certified. The eruption was not unexpected, given the longstanding democratic commitments and desires of Belarusians who have witnessed “rigged elections…in every vote in Belarus since Lukashenko took power in 1994,” according to AP.
The government responded with widespread crackdowns against the peaceful protestors, many of whom were students and scholars. Lukashenko’s authoritative reaction exemplified an unjust infringement on Belarusian citizens’ freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly, and association. Candidates that stood in opposition were arrested or forcibly exiled. Police used excessive and indiscriminate force to disperse demonstrations on university campuses. At the time of the protests in 2021, the Belarusian Students' Association and Student Initiative Group collected evidence that 492 students had been detained and an additional 160 expelled. The European University Association, the European Students’ Union, and Scholars at Risk responded by issuing a joint statement condemning the “criminalization” of Belarusian students and academics.
One such student, Marfa Rabkova, was most recently sentenced to 15 years in prison for her nonviolent participation in documenting human rights violations on behalf of Viasno, a Belarusian human right nonprofit organization. Viasno was founded in 1996 in response to these ongoing violations to help arrested protestors and to monitor human rights violations. According to Amnesty International, the Belarusian authorities have consistently harassed and interfered with Viasna’s efforts, particularly in the latest election cycle. Rabkova is the first member of Viasna to be detained by the Belarusian government.
Since 2020’s illegitimate election, the tensions have continued to escalate between Lukashenko’s government and the Belarusian academia and civil society organizations. Even as they insist on their demands of reinstating the rule of law and internationally and constitutionally protected human rights and civil liberties in Belarus, more and more “closed-door trials” have sentenced political activists to prison. Organizations like Scholars at Risk continue to advocate for the release of imprisoned academics specifically, including 11 students and one professor who have been tried for “organizing and preparing in group actions that grossly violate public order.” Most of them have served over two years in either state prisons or penal colonies, continuing to face the brutal treatment of a government that exploits its citizenry and falsely espouses democratic principles. Ultimately, the longstanding tactics of suppression indicate that “academic freedom is dead in Belarus,” as one Belarusian academic in exile stated. Students and professors are consistently pressured to conform to Lukashenko’s ideological regime and risk facing arrest, harassment, expulsion, or dismissal if they dissent.
Lukashenko’s government has also been implicated in supporting President Vladimir Putin’s war efforts since Russia invaded Ukraine in February of 2022. The Belarusian autocrat has become one of “Russia’s crucial allies,” according to the Kennan Institute, and on October 10 of 2022, this point was evidenced by Lukashenko’s announcement that he and Putin would “deploy a regional group of forces from both countries.” Consequently, much of the global higher education community has employed boycotts and suspensions of cooperation with Belarusian and Russian academic institutions. This includes the European Federation of Academies of Sciences and Humanities, composed of over 50 European academies, which suspended particular Belarusian university memberships. Inevitably, the war’s incalculable consequences on the future of Ukraine’s academic freedom have only been further inflamed by Lukashenko’s regime, punishing not only the hopes of intellectual freedom in Belarus but beyond.
Withstanding Lukashenko’s punitive rule, coordinated attempts are still being made by the international academic community to extend opportunities for Belarusian students and scholars whose abilities to work and live have been severely compromised. The European Union, among other institutions, continue to create initiatives intended to support Belarusian students and scholars whose academic freedom has suffered from the pressures imposed by the prevailing autocratic regime. EU4Belarus is one such measure. Funded by the European Union in the aftermath of the 2020 Belarusian election cycle, it enables online course support for Belarusian students, along with scholarship opportunities. The Institute for East European Studies at Freie Universität of Berlin, too, provides fellowships for scholars from Belarus who have had to flee the country in order to avoid state persecution.
Endangered Scholars Worldwide (ESW) condemns the sentencing and unjustifiable harsh treatment of Belarusian scholars, students, and civic activists, who continue to struggle for freedom and democracy. We at ESW remain deeply concerned about the continual violations perpetuated by the Belarusian authorities against the rights of students and academics who remain committed to justice and democracy, and we condemn the arbitrary detention and inhumane incarceration of all who exercised their civic rights and liberties by participating in peaceful democratic protests. ESW calls upon all international organizations, academic and professional associations, and other groups and individuals devoted to the promotion and defense of human rights and academic freedom to strongly protest and condemn the actions of Lukashenko’s undemocratic regime and to appeal for unjustly detained students’ immediate and unconditional release.
Please send appeals on behalf of endangered scholars and students to the following:
The Administration of the President
Of the Republic of Belarus
Reception of Citizens and Representatives of Legal Entities
Residence of the President
38 Karl Marx Street
Permanent Representative of Belarus to the United Nations
Permanent Mission of Belarus to UN
136 E 67th Street, 4th Fl.
New York, NY 10065
Telephone: (212) 535-3420
Fax: (212) 734-4810
(Last updated: November 30, 2022)