oDR: Opinion

Belarusian prisoners’ letters shine light on life in Lukashenka’s jails

Two years after protesters contested Belarus’s election result, they refuse to be silenced – even while behind bars

Nik Williams Inna Kavalionak
9 August 2022, 12.43pm

Maria Kalenik, a student at the Belarusian State Academy of Arts, was sentenced to two and half years in prison over student protests

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Illustration: Maria Tolstova / Mediazona

It’s been two years since the people of Belarus went to the polls. The entrenchment of the Lukashenka regime had made elections a dangerous time for civil society and anyone brave enough to stand as an opposition candidate. But despite state repression, a militarised and unaccountable security force, and a skewed electoral landscape, Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s grip on power looked weak in August 2020.

Until it didn’t.

Officially, Lukashenka won a landslide victory, securing 80.23% of the vote. In a state that had been hollowed out, official vote tallies mean both very little and everything at the same time. In the two years that have followed, a protest movement contesting the outcome of the election has been brutally suppressed, senior opposition leaders imprisoned or forced to flee and at least 1,261 political prisoners detained (as of 9 August 2022). The regime and its security forces continue to behave with impunity. Lukashenka has also backed the invasion of Ukraine by Putin’s Russia.

Russia’s actions in Ukraine have refocused the world’s attention on the region, but Belarusian prisons are a record of a brutal clampdown that is largely obscured from view. Since August 2021, Index on Censorship has worked with local partners, including Politzek and Belarus Free Theatre, to translate and publish letters written by people detained since the election. To date we have published 23 letters that shine a light on what goes on in Lukashenka’s prisons.

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Many describe the rampant abuse of power that comes clothed in the language of public order. Levon Khalatrian, a bar manager and opposition volunteer, was sentenced to two years of restricted freedom or khymiya. The February 2021 sentence was for “breaching public order” on election night by shouting slogans, obstructing traffic, and clapping his hands. Maria Kalenik, a 23-year-old student, was accused of organising and participating in group actions that violated public order. Hanna Vishniak, a volunteer with an activist Telegram channel, was convicted of “organising and preparing activities that grossly violate public order”. On 4 June 2021 she was sentenced to two and a half years in prison.

Each letter is the result of a careful calculation between truth and concealment, a melding made necessary by the censorship regime in place. ‘“In Belarusian prisons, letters pass through strict two-way censorship regimes… Words, sentences, and even pages can be withdrawn, whole letters can be returned to the sender or simply disappear if the rules are not followed. This is, however, the best case scenario. In the worst-case, a person can be sent to a punishment cell, beaten, and threatened,” says researcher and human rights activist Ala Sivets.

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Post-election protests rocked Lukashenka's Belarus. And two years on, the state is still cracking down

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Public Domain / Jana Shnipelson

The letters and poems that make it out of Belarus, many of them hand drawings, are addressed to partners, penpals, family members and friends. They are musings on Belarus (today and as remembered), the conflict between Ukraine and Russia (jailed engineer Siarhei Sakavets likens them to warring brothers) and attempts to maintain normalcy. They are also intimate, some recalling moments that collide with Lukashenka’s repression in unexpected ways.

Ksenia Syramalot’s epistolary relationship with penpal Diana is a case in point. Syramalot, spokesperson for the Belarusian Students’ Association and a volunteer at the Human Rights Center “Viasna”, an NGO, was sentenced to two years and six months in prison. Hers is part of “the student case”, as it is known in Belarus. A year after the 2020 protests, 11 students and one teacher were sentenced for their participation. From prison, Ksenia struck up a conversation with Diana on the theme of Harry Potter. In one of her letters, she refers to the magical mirror at Hogwarts, which is supposed to show the deepest, most desperate desire of a person's heart.

She writes: “I think I would see my release in the mirror [of Erised] now. I often try to imagine it, but I’ve been thinking lately that I don’t know at all what it would look like: things change quickly and significantly at times.” The fantastical can give hope, even if that hope is sometimes obscured.

Two years have passed since that fateful presidential election in Belarus. There are fewer protests on the streets but the repression has not diminished. People are still being arbitrarily arrested and accused of criminal acts solely because they have been identified from photos of the 2020 protests or have shared information from “extremist” independent media outlets. When repression is both so arbitrary and embedded, the letters from prison are a vital record – of the clampdown and the resistance to being silenced. In the words of former Index colleague Andrei Aliaksandrau, who is in pre-trial detention after being charged with high treason: “I remember and love all of you. Keep writing.”

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