On September 6, a Minsk city court sentenced Marfa Rabkova, a third-year Belarusian student at European Humanities University (EHU) and coordinator of the Volunteer Service at Human Rights Center Viasna, to 15 years in prison for her nonviolent participation in documenting human rights violations committed by Belarusian authorities during post-election protests in 2020. A total of thirteen official charges were made against Rabkova, including “organizing, participating in, and training others to participate in mass riots,” “inciting social hostility towards the government,” and “involvement in a criminal organization.”
The protests began after the August 2020 presidential elections in Belarus. 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 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. Viasno, the human rights nonprofit organization where Rabkova served as coordinator, 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.
Both Rabkova and her husband, Vadzim Zharomsky, were arrested after being followed to their home by the Main Directorate for Combatting Organized Crime and Corruption. The couple’s apartment was subsequently raided by authorities and much of their personal belongings were seized. Since their initial arrest in 2020, Zharomsky has been released; however, for two years, from her initial arrest to the declaration of her sentence last month, Rabkova stayed in pretrial detention without a proper indictment and legal due process. Throughout the detention period, her health has significantly deteriorated. Viasna has reported that she endures “constant abdominal pain” and “inflamed lymph nodes” that require serious medical examination, which has been routinely denied to her by prison authorities. Furthermore, she was diagnosed twice with COVID-19 in 2021, having also experienced a third bout of similar COVID symptoms in early 2022.
As with many oppressive political regimes, Rabkova’s case is not singular. More and more “closed-door trials” have sentenced other political prisoners who have protested Belarusian human rights violations and political injustices since the most recent re-election of Lukashenko. Rabkova and others continue to face the brutal treatment of a government that exploits its citizenry and falsely espouses democratic principles.
Endangered Scholars Worldwide (ESW) condemns the sentencing and unjustifiable harsh treatment of Marfa Rabkova, alongside other students and civic activists, who continue to struggle for freedom and democracy. ESW endorses the letter penned and circulated by Scholars at Risk, which calls on Lukashenko’s government to immediately release Rabkova and ensure her well-being and access to proper medical treatment, legal counsel, and family. We 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 regime; to appeal for Rabkova’s immediate and unconditional release; and to sign and circulate the letter penned on behalf of Rabkova by Scholars at Risk. Previous articles on Belarusian violations of academic freedom and injustice by ESW can be found here.
Please send appeals on behalf of Marfa Rabkova and other student protesters 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
Valentin Rybakov 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