Since the 9 August 2020 presidential election in Belarus, the results of which are widely considered to be fraudulent, the Belarusian authorities, led by President Lukashenka have conducted a violent and unprecedented crackdown against dissenting voices.
While these events have been recently overshadowed by increased international attention to the role of Belarus in the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, Belarusian courts have played host to a revolving door of trials against civil society, businesspersons, lawyers, students, bloggers, and peaceful protesters. Not even 2022 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ales Bialiatski has been spared.
“Letters from Lukashenka’s Prisoners” was first organised in 2021 by Belarus Free Theatre, Index on Censorship and Politzek.m, supported by HRHF’s House to House fund. The campaign collects (with consent), translates, and publishes the letters of Belarusian political prisoners, and provides insight from behind bars into their hopes, relationships, sadness, strength, and art. In 2022, the project was continued by Index on Censorship, Politzek and Human Rights House Foundation.
Behind the words
Campaigns like this are crucial in helping to raise awareness outside of Belarus and among the international community. We also know that it’s important for political prisoners and their families to know that they have not been forgotten.
Jessica Ní Mhainín, Policy & Campaigns Manager, Index on Censorship
It is important to note that the censorship of communications means that those detained by Lukashenka’s regime are not free to express themselves openly.
Sometimes the letters from a prisoner of the regime in Belarus are full of encouragement and nice stories. While human rights defenders and activists speak up about severe detention conditions and beatings, psychological pressure and denial of medical assistance, the picture from the prisoners’ letters can appear to be rather peaceful. Index on Censorship explains how political prisoners escape the censor’s ire in its article “Why are the letters of political prisoners in Belarus so cheerful?”.
From children’s stories about a penguin to a heartfelt letter from a wife to husband
The campaign has published 29 letters from political prisoners as of February 2023. Note: some of the political prisoners featured have since been released. The letters are written and addressed to family and friends and contain everything from a father’s stories about a penguin for his children to a wife’s heartfelt letter to her beloved husband.
“The door opened, and in walked Penguin with a mattress in one hand and bag in the other. The door slammed shut behind him. Penguin looked exhausted and dishevelled. ‘Hello,’ he said. ‘Hi there!’ said Papa in reply, as he showed Penguin where to put his mattress and his belongings.”
Aliaksandr Vasilevich is a businessman, gallerist, and father of two girls. In his letters, he writes stories for his daughters about his time in prison after receiving a new cellmate – a penguin. Read “Papa and the Penguin, or, How to stay sane in Prison” here. Vasilevich was detained on 28 August 2020 and on February 4 2022, the Saviecki district court of Minsk reached a verdict on his case. Vasilevich was sentenced to three years in a general-security penal colony. He was, however, released in the courtroom in connection with the expiration of the term of liability,
“Hi my dearly beloved world’s best dad! How are you doing in this trying time? I’m constantly thinking of you, grandpa and all our nearest and dearest – sending my hello’s and lots of hugs to all!”
Maryia Kalesnikava is a member of the presidium of the Belarusian opposition Coordination Council. She was sentenced to 11 years in prison on September 6, 2021 following her abduction and an attempt to forcefully expel her from Belarus in September 2020. Read more about her and her letter to father here.
“In this pitch darkness there is a single ray of light. This is you, my hope for a future life. After all, isn’t it going to get better? Isn’t it, Vadim?”
Marfa Rabkova is a human rights activist and the coordinator of Viasna’s Volunteer Service. On 6 September 2022, she was sentenced to 15 years in prison – the longest sentence in a political case among women. In her letters, she writes to her husband Vadim. Learn more about Marfa, her case, and read her letter here.
“I was deprived of a big parcel and a long visit. So, my position is precarious and depends on the mood of my superiors. For example, if they notice my uniform jacket is not properly buttoned…”
Alena Hnauk, a 65-year-old pensioner, doting grandmother, and activist from the village of Tkachi. She was first sentenced to two years of home confinement for “dancing protest” on 13 September 2020 in Brest, followed by criminal charges for “insulting the president” and “discrediting Belarus”, resulting in 3.5 years in a general-security penal colony and a fine announced on June 17, 2022. In her recent letter to her family, she highlights disproportional and cruel punishments directed at political prisoners.
I wanted to write something like ‘glad you seem to have recovered…’ [but] it sounds like an American budget action film, in which a cop rushes up to another character, who’s clearly had enough, and asks: ‘Are you OK?’ And this character has just been run over by a lorry, thrown out of a flying plane, or hit by a cannonball, and the character is lying there barely alive, bleeding cranberry jam. Everyone can see that he’s definitely not okay, but the character – enduring the pain – moans in response: ‘Yes, I’m fine’. What else can he say?
Andrei Aliaksandrau is a journalist and human rights defender. He had been a media manager and deputy director of the Belarusian Private News Agency (BelaPAN) prior to his detention. He has also worked at Index on Censorship and Article 19. In his letter to his friend Tania, he writes about the absurdity of asking someone how they are when things are clearly not going well. Aliaksandrau is serving a 14 year sentence.
Read all of the letters from the campaign here.
Send a digital postcard via the volunteer initiative Solidarity Postcards Atelier, organised by activists of the Belarusian Human Rights School and the Belarusian Students Association.
Become friends with a Belarusian political prisoner with Politzek’s campaign.
About the campaign organisers
Index on Censorship is a nonprofit that campaigns for and defends free expression worldwide. We publish work by censored writers and artists, promote debate, and monitor threats to free speech.
Politzek.me supports political prisoners in Belarus.
Human Rights House Foundation establishes, supports, and connects Human Rights Houses – coalitions of civil society organisations working together to advance human rights at home and abroad. Together, we advocate for the freedoms of assembly, association, and expression and the right to be a human rights defender. These four rights underpin a strong and independent civil society and protect and empower human rights defenders.
About HRHF’s House to House fund
Human Rights House Foundation’s House-to-House (H2H) fund provides financial and technical support to groups of two or more Human Rights Houses working in partnership to address common human rights issues in their communities. Find out more here.