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Belarus: Cultural scene in peril as crackdown escalates

belarus 22.02

Belarus’ vibrant cultural scene is being suffocated amid the brutal crackdown on dissent, with authorities arbitrarily detaining and torturing artists, musicians, writers and actors, and forcing others out of their jobs, Amnesty International said today.

In a new briefing, part of the #StandWithBelarus campaign, the organization highlighted how the government clampdown that followed protests against Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s widely disputed re-election is stifling Belarus’s cultural sector. A growing number of cultural figures are facing unfounded criminal proceedings, including some who are being held behind bars and face long prison sentences.

“The scale of repression against the Belarusian cultural scene cannot be underestimated. The authorities are methodically destroying Belarus’s spirited cultural life and its most creative members, in an effort to suppress all vestiges of free expression and dissent,” said Aisha Jung, Amnesty International’s Senior Campaigner on Belarus.

“Those who dare to voice criticism of the Belarusian authorities, through creative and artistic means, are being relentlessly persecuted.”

Vola Semchanka, an amateur folk singer and dancer who used to work for the Mahilyou State Theatre as a communications aide, told Amnesty International how she has faced multiple arrests and fines since October 2020 for participation in “unauthorized” meetings, and harassment in her workplace. The theatre director at the time refused to sack Vola and other dissenting artists. He was then fired himself. Many of Vola’s work responsibilities were then withdrawn and she feared she would lose her job altogether. This is exactly what happened, on 18 February, after the briefing featuring her story had been finished for publication.

“After my first detention I felt scared to come home, I slept at friends’ houses most nights. Now I’m used to living with this constant sense of danger. We are all ready to become victims of state persecution at any moment,” Vola told Amnesty International.

It is not only individuals but entire cultural institutions that fall victim to government reprisals, including the country’s leading Yanka Kupala National Academic Theatre. In August 2020 the theatre’s director Pavel Latushka spoke out in support of peaceful protesters. His contract was immediately terminated and more than 60 theatre employees, including almost all the actors, left in protest.

“We will not stand by while the Belarusian authorities gag the country’s most creative individuals. Our global solidarity campaign supports all peaceful means of protest and resistance by the Belarusian people, against the authorities’ cynical and sinister efforts to deprive them of their human rights and curtail their access to diverse ideas and opinions,” said Aisha Jung.

Background

Amnesty International’s #StandWithBelarus global solidarity campaign was launched on 27 January 2021, with the publication of a report revealing how the Belarusian authorities have weaponized the justice system to punish survivors of torture rather than perpetrators. The campaign runs until mid-May, and regular briefings will highlight how different sectors of Belarusian society are being targeted.  Belarus is currently experiencing the most egregious clampdown on human rights in its post-independence history. Amnesty International activists around the world will participate in various actions to demonstrate their solidarity with the peaceful protesters in Belarus.

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