Human rights violation and state abuse against cultural professionals, writers and translators in Belarus. Briefing by the European Writers’ Council for the DROI meeting on 27 and 28 October 2021.

Brussels, 26 October 2021  

Distinguished Members of the DROI Committee,

On the occasion of your meeting, we would like to inform you about the continuously worsening situation against cultural professionals, and in particular writers, translators, writers’ associations and the independent book scene in Belarus. We obtain our information through regular exchanges with authors in Belarus, on the run as well as in exile, and our member, the Union of Belarusian Writers (UBW), as well as the PEN Centre Belarus, and the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ).

Since the rigged elections in Belarus in August 2020, the country is being overrun with a radical crackdown on free speech and against humanitarian organisations by the dictatorial Lukashenko regime:

  • Over 40,000 people have been arrested in Belarus, including over 1,200 cultural and media workers — writers, translators, musicians, actors — and human rights activists, as the immersive 2021 Report by the Belarusian PEN Centre In the first half of 2021 alone, over 600 political prisoners were registered, spending an average of 4 years behind bars – for a Facebook post, a bumper sticker in the colors white-red-white, or for reading the recently banned literary classics on the train. The newsrooms of 70 media outlets have been raided, and 50 websites blocked.
  • More than 1,500 cultural, human rights, media and civil society organisations have been targeted by a “radical cleansing”-operation. Over 284 organisations against whom Lukashenka is directing his attack, have already been forcibly dissolved by the Supreme Court, among them the Belarusian Association of Journalists, the PEN Belarus – and the independent Union of Belarusian Writers (UBW), which was shut-down by the Judge Ihar Milto of the Supreme Court in Minsk on 1 October 2021. Since a number of lawyers have lost their attorney license after representing non-governmental organisations, or been imprisoned for defending cultural organisations, it is hardly possible anymore for persecuted associations to defend themselves against the state’s malevolence.
  • Our EWC member, the Union of Belarusian Writers (UBW) Саюз беларускіх пісьменнікаў was founded in 1934 and is the oldest cultural organisation in Belarus. It was stripped of its legality – a process that UBW board members describe as “Kafkaesque”: On 14 July 2021, the offices of the UBW were stormed, the PC and archives raided and sealed. Subsequently, the Union was accused of not having been able to submit papers on time – the same papers that the State itself has put under lock and key. 
  • For authors, bloggers, journalists, it’s impossible to publish anything off- or online, without risking to be imprisoned. The members of the Union of the Belarusian Writers (UBW) are black-listed because of their civil position. They are forbidden to be published in state newspapers, literary magazines, or allowed to speak at state TV or other state media.                                                                                                       
  • State-owned printing houses refuse to print independent newspapers. In May 2021, dictator Lukashenko passed an amendment to the law on the mass media, which allows the authorities far-reaching interference with regard to freedom of information.
  • It is forbidden to accompany demonstrations with live streams. Anyone carrying a mobile phone risks being named as an active organiser of the demonstration. Belarusian authorities have characterised anti-government protesters as “criminals” and “violent revolutionaries backed by the West”, and described the actions of their law enforcement agencies as “appropriate and necessary”, to “fight terrorism”.
  • Authors and translators critical of the regime are unerringly discredited on state television and their works sorted out in state bookshops. There are public calls on Belarusian state television to hang opposition members.
  • As PEN Belarus reported, the literary scene is being targeted in a particularly perfidious and arbitrary manner. Pensioners who read books by Nil S. Hilevich, Yakub Kolas, Uladzimir Karatkievich on the train were accused of taking part in an “unauthorised protest action” because they read “opposition books”.
  • Customs inspects books sent abroad or from abroad, and confiscate works classified as “extremist”, including the novel “Revolution” by Victor Martinovich.
  • Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich is probably one of the most censored writers: it is now forbidden to mention her name and her work in school and university literature classes.

We are witnessing a hateful state power that resorts to all means to slaughter the democracy movement and the freedom of speech. Our colleagues who are on the run or still under pressure in Belarus, ask us to call on European governments on their behalf to actively support the people and democracy movement of Belarus. After a year in which neither sanctions took effect nor the culture ministers of the EU and EEA were at least able to agree on a common stance in favor of the media and cultural professionals of Belarus, it is time for Europe to actively defend the values of democracy – by supporting those who are suffering under Lukashenko’s violence.

Thus, we call for the following:

Being conscious of the dictatorial behavior of Lukashenka’s regime, we request from EU authorities:

  • A clear protest in a common statement on the ongoing violence and repression in Belarus.
  • Clear leveraging in other institutions, such as UN, ACNUR or OSCE to step up pressure from the international community and take action in the face of continuous violations of the human right to freedom of expression in Belarus.
  • Extended and accelerated humanitarian and/or Schengen visas (D) for fleeing Belarusians, especially, but not limited to persecuted media and cultural professionals, writers and translators. Financial and political support for those forcibly liquidated NGOs to be re-established in countries outside Belarus.
  • To establish and expand residency scholarships (6-12 months) and shelter programmes such as those already offered by ICORN, national PEN centres or universities. This appeal is extended to all EU member States to whom we strongly suggest doing what is in their power to support cultural workers and the writers and translators from Belarus.
  • Promoting translation and supporting the development of communication projects that make the banned and silenced voices of Belarusian culture and writers in Europe readable and audible again.

And specifically, from DROI we urge:

  • To actively support, by the most adequate and firm means, the democracy movement, freedom of speech and the return of human dignity in Belarus, as well as a strong defense of a singular and valuable European culture.

We remain confident in the power of democracy and the European Union bodies and institutions, and we thank you for the HR Resolution already passed in September 2021, especially for point 38.

We stay at your disposal for any further information.

Nina George, President, Germany                           
Maïa Bensimon, Vice President, France
Miguel Ángel Serrano , Vice President, Spain
Myriam Diocaretz, Secretary-General , The Netherlands               
Eystein Hanssen, Board Member, Norway                     
Markku Loytönen, Board Member, Finland                    

 

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Overview on selected reports and statements:

13 October 2021: EWC Member The Society of Authors stands with the Union of Belarusian Writers.  
“The independent Union of Belarusian Writers (UBW), the Society of Authors’ (SoA) Belarusian counterpart, was forcibly dissolved on Friday 1st October following a court order from the Minsk Supreme Court.
This is the latest instalment in a series of efforts by the Belarusian authorities to repress writers, translators, and the independent cultural scene in Belarus – see for example the appeal earlier this year to press the illegitimate Lukashenka’s regime to release the political prisoners.

This persecution is simply unacceptable in a democratic regime and is in direct violation of the European Convention on Human Rights, including free speech.”

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5 October 2021: Publishing Perspectives – EWC: ‘Under Illegitimate Governance’ . From the feature by Porter Anderson, Editor in Chief. (…):
“On Saturday (October 2), CNN released an exclusive interview with Lukashenko by the network’s Moscow-based senior international correspondent Matthew Chance. The video and write-up by Chance with Zahra Ullah is here. A transcript of the interview is here. (…) In the interview, that Kafkaesque quality referenced by advocacy organizations is unmistakable in many of Lukashenko’s responses to Chance’s questions about the state’s violent crackdown on protests of the August 2020 election. Lukashenko claims he won re-election, while much of the international community disagrees, as does the Belarusian opposition.”

Today’s message from the European Writers’ Council closes with a statement of support issued by George and her associates on the governing board: “You can shut down the Union of Belarusian Writers but you can never shut down the writers themselves. We absolutely do not accept the decision of a court under illegitimate governance. For us, the UBW will live on, and we will work together with the writers and translators of Europe to make their voices heard.”

European Writers Council Reports the Belarusian Writers Union ‘Forcibly Dissolved’

4 October 2021: The EWC member A*dS – Authors of Switzerland, declares its solidarity with Belarusian Writers: Solidarity of the A*dS with the authors from Belarus.
“The wind is rising – we must try to live”. This sentence by Paul Valéry is universal, but it is not appreciated everywhere. In Belarus, it is life-threatening to try to live if you are an author. Those in power persecute “political opponents”, artists and especially writers, solely because they are observers of the society in which they live. And what is writing but that: trying to understand how people manage to put one foot in front of the other.
In Belarus, this is a crime. Which means that people like you and me, people with the ordinary courage of an ordinary person, whose only fault is that they cannot look away and report what they see – that these people are in danger. Writers are persecuted, convicted, imprisoned, put to flight. (…)
The Association of Authors of Switzerland A*dS would like to publicly express its solidarity with them with these lines; some of them may be “political opponents”, as they are called in the media. But probably they are all just ordinary people who, like you and me, cannot help but keep their eyes open and soberly tell the small, everyday stories of people who, like you and me, like us and them, try to live with the dignity that an autocrat denies them. In addition, the A*dS calls on the Swiss authorities, as well as foundations and other organisations, to support and advocate for Belarusian authors: by appealing to the Belarusian authorities, providing residence permits, scholarships or residencies for authors on the run, or by facilitating printed or electronic publications of Belarusian literature – including translations – so that authors from Belarus can continue to write and Belarusian literature continues to find its readership.

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4 October 2021: The EWC stand with its member, the Union of Belarusian Writers. ““We observe in real time the deterioration of a state into a fascist regime, in the direct neighbourhood of Europe”, says Nina George, President of the EWC. “It is true that the illegitimate Lukashenka regime has already abused forced liquidation as a popular means of pressure to bend unpopular opinions and frighten people in the decades before. However, what we have witnessed since July 2021 is a strategic extermination mechanism against free speech, against democracy, against culture – and against the Belarusian Nation.”

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2 October 2021: The Chair of the EWC Member the Norwegian Writers’ Association Den norske Forfatterforening:
“I am deeply appalled by the repeated attacks on freedom of speech in Belarus, and now the regime’s closure of the soon-to-be-centennial UBW, including Nobel Prize-winning Svetlana Aleksiyevich member, says Heidi Marie Kriznik, Chair of the Norwegian Writers’ Association Den norske Forfatterforening. From the Statement:
The two remaining board members, Barys Piatrovich and Tsikhan Charniakievich, describe the court hearings as absurd and surreal, and also the courthouse – a huge new but empty building with interiors like from a palace, where a few guards walked around and where the association’s lawyer hour after hour was required documentation that could only be obtained in the offices closed by the regime. The Norwegian Writers’ Association has since 2018 had a friendly contact with the Belarusian Writers’ Association, and can be helpful in getting in touch with the chairman of the board of the Writers’ Association in Belarus. There is a massive monitoring that takes place in the country and communication by phone, e-mail and FB is avoided.”

Belarusisk forfatterforening stengt ned av landets høyesterett

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1 October 2021: EWC member the Swedish Writers’ Union reacted on the news, that the Саюз беларускіх пісьменнікаў Union of Belarusian Writers is liquidated: “Judges I. Milto of the Supreme Court in Minsk has decided to liquidate the independent Belarusian Writers’ Union UBW – the oldest writers’ organisation in the country (…). The Swedish Writers’ Union condemns those in power in Belarus who seek to stifle free speech. We unreservedly support our fellow Belarusian writers and consider the ruling to be unlawful and ineffective. The fascist regime in Minsk lacks any legitimacy after the rigged presidential elections of 9 August 2020 and its subsequent wave of extremely brutal violence – a violence that continues to this day. The Board of the Swedish Writers’ Union has unanimously proposed to the highest decision-making body of writers and translators – the General Assembly – to elect UBW President Barys Pyatrovich as an Honorary Member of the Writers’ Union. The struggle for freedom of expression and human rights knows no national borders, the free word cannot be silenced!”

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23 August 2021: In response to the news that the Belarusian Justice Ministry intends to liquidate the independent Union of Belarusian Writers, the European Writers Council (EWC) stands up high against the outrageous violation of Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Association.

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6 August 2021: The European Council of Literary Translators’ Associations (CEATL), the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) and the European Writers Council (EWC)  call on the governments of Europe and the international community to demonstrate firm support for the democracy movement in Belarus and to provide refuge and humanitarian assistance to those fleeing the country.

 

Background and Media:

16 July 2021 Publishing Perspectives (International)

European Writers Council and PEN America Slam Belarus Raids

The European Writers Council and a consortium of agencies working with PEN America blast the Lukashenko regime for its ‘targeted and concerted attack’ on cultural and rights organizations in Belarus. To the article

16 July 2021 Börsenblatt des Deutschen Buchhandels (Germany)

Wave of repression against writers’ associations

The European Writers Council condemns the Lukashenko regime’s attacks on its member, the Union of Belarusian Writers, as well as on the writers’ organisation PEN Belarus in Minsk. To the article

16 July 2021 Nyheter (Norway)

Writers’ organizations raided

Lukashenko’s regime in Belarus has recently raided the premises of several Belarusian writers’ organizations. The leader of the writers’ organization The Union of Belarusian Writers, Barys Piatrovich, has had his freedom of movement restricted, among other things through a refusal to travel abroad. The European Writers’ Council (EWC) condemns the incidents. The leader of the Norwegian Writers’ Union, Eystein Hanssen, who also sits on the board of the EWC, is deeply concerned about the serious development in Belarus. The Writers’ Association writes in a press release.
“The Writers’ Union condemns dictator Lukashenko’s repression of our fellow writers, journalists and human rights defenders in Belarus. He tries with violence and restrictions to gag all forms of free thought and criticism in Belarus. The authorities in other European countries must react sharply to how the authorities in Belarus persecute critics and the opposition in the country, says the Chair of the Authors’ Association, Eystein Hanssen, about the serious development in Belarus. Hanssen also sits on the board of EWC, the European Writers’ Council.” To the article   To the Solidarity Address

16 July 2021 Actualitté (France)

Belarus: Police raid authors’ associations’ offices

The already difficult situation of freedom of expression is becoming dramatic in Belarus: several authors’ associations, including the Belarusian Writers’ Union and the local branch of PEN, were raided on 14 July. Documents and materials were seized and some members were banned from leaving the country. To the article

July 20 2021, Strade (Italy)

SOLIDARITY WITH BELARUSIAN AUTHORS

Strade expresses its full solidarity with Belarusian writers for the serious attacks on freedom of expression and the escalation of violence carried out by the Lukašėnka government and the security forces. On 14 July, the offices of the Union of Belarusian Writers (UBW) and PEN Belarus, together with some 20 non-governmental organisations, were violently attacked by the security forces.  To the Solidarity Address

July 21 2021 CEATL – European Federation of Literary Translators Association
July 22 2021 Publishing Perspectives (International)

Lukashenko Regime To Close PEN Belarus in Minsk

“In the last 11 days, 63 offices and flats of journalists have been stormed, as well as 51 offices and private apartments of chairs of cultural associations, human rights organizations, and writers’ unions, such as the EWC member UBW and its president, the poet Barys Piatrovich. Soon it will be the anniversary of the rigged elections, and Europe is still making Sunday speeches. Our colleagues are on the run, and Belarus is experiencing a drying-up of culture, intellectuals, scienctists, who are leaving their beloved country, terrified. If international politics continues to hold back so helplessly, it’s up to the book community to carry on the voices of Belarus. Publish Belarusian authors. Demand exile residences in your cities. Let them have their say in the free media. Award scholarships. A democracy is not destroyed overnight. Those who now keep quiet about Belarus are belittling the freedom of the word.”  To the article

23 July 2021 The Society of Authors (UK)

SoA condemns raid on Union of Belarusian Writers #StandWithBelarus

We strongly condemn the raid this month on the offices of our sister union in Belarus. The Union of Belarusian Writers’ (UBW) offices in Minsk was raided by government officials on 14 July.

According to reports from the European Writers’ Council, the Combating Organised Crime and Corruption Directorate of the Belarusian Ministry of the Interior last week conducted what it calls a nationwide ‘radical cleansing’ operation against independent groups of writers, journalists, cultural workers, and human rights organisations, including the UBW and PEN Belarus.

We have written to Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab MP to call on the UK Government to apply further diplomatic pressure on Belarus to end violence and repression across the country.   To the Open Letter

23 July 2021, German Writers Union VS together with PEN Germany

Freedom of speech, of opinion and of criticism are not at the disposal of politics, but its foundation.

The VS and the German PEN Centre, together with the European umbrella organisation for writers, the European Writers’ Council (EWC), firmly stand by the UBW and PEN Belarus and its members and representatives. Both organisations strongly condemn the actions of the Belarusian government and call on Germany and the EU to take steps to protect Belarusian writers and journalists and to proceed with sanctions against the dictatorial Lukashenko government.  To the press release

23 July 2021, Delo (Slovenia)

The Lukashenko regime will close the Belarusian Pen Center

From January to June, 621 violations of the rights of the cultural sector were listed in the Belarusian Pen Center, 39 of whom are political prisoners.
Nina George, President of the European Writers ‘Council, said in a statement supporting the persecuted writers’ colleagues that the Belarusian KGB had broken into and searched 63 offices and apartments of journalists and 51 offices and apartments of cultural leaders in the last eleven days. human rights organizations, opposition groups and writers ’associations, several activists were arrested. To the article

23 July 2021, Süddeutsche Zeitung (Germany)

“It will hurt”

For weeks now, literature and journalism in Belarus have been dealt a heavy, if unsurprising, blow. What dictatorship is interested in the free word? (…) The chairman of the independent Union of Belarusian Writers, Barys Piatrovich, is not allowed to leave the country, is banned from communicating and lives under house arrest. To the article

28 July 2021 Aftenposten (Norway)

Belarus tightens: It is a battle of life and death

Search of offices and homes. Extensive arrests. Belarusian authorities attack civil society. The EWC demands that European politicians take responsibility. –
“After talking to writers on the run, I see that the most important thing now is to give visas to those who need it. Let them study and work in the EU and EEA. And let them share their experiences and opinions in the free press. Lukashenko would hate that, says Nina George, EWC President. 
To the article

 

Background and history