In Belarus, Nobel Prize laureate and opposition leaders on trial as repression hardens


In Belarus, police brutality, abuse of the court system, and the manipulation and repression of the public space is rife, silencing individual voices. The regime is using new ‘legal’ instruments of coercion to make a grim reality even grimmer.

Nobel Prize laureate Ales Bialiatski on trial again

On 5 January 2023, the trial in the politically motivated case of the Viasna human rights organisation began. Three human rights defenders, each facing 7 to 12 years of imprisonment, are in the dock: Viasna chairman and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ales Bialiatski, his deputy Valiantsin Stefanovic, and Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections campaign coordinator Uladzimir Labkovich. Ales Bialiatski was jailed from 2011 to 2014 on dubious charges and was imprisoned again in July 2021.

All are treated as dangerous criminals in what seems an effort to maximise intimidation. They are caged and handcuffed, with two police units checking everyone entering the court. A judge refused defendants’ motion to face trial in their native Belarusian language.

Needless to say, Bialiatski was not given the opportunity to take part in the 10 December 2022 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony which took place in Oslo.

A propaganda report released on Belarus state channel 1 TV did not say a single word about the international recognition Bialiatski and his colleagues have received. Instead, it questioned their status as human rights defenders and presented them as ‘criminals assisted by the EU who smuggled money to support the destructive opposition’ in Belarus. A new low in the highly manipulated information sphere in Belarus.

More political prisoners, ‘extremists’ and ‘terrorists’

The number of political prisoners in Belarus as of 31 January 2023 is at least 1,441. We have covered this trend here at EUvsDisinfo. The actual number of political prisoners may be much higher as it is becoming more difficult to monitor cases of politically motivated persecution due to increased secrecy during trials. In addition, repression does not stop when people are released. Once out of prison or police custody, people remain on the Belarusian state’s radar.

The machine of repression grinds on and each week new people enter the register. Since the 2020 presidential election campaign in Belarus ended with the state announcing falsified results, human rights defenders have documented over 2,500 convictions and the ongoing prosecutions of at least another 3,500 people in politically motivated criminal cases.

Viasna’s December 2022 human rights report laid bare that a ‘large-scale and systematic persecution of dissidents’ has continued. The report documents the continued use of torture and other prohibited treatment during politically motivated criminal investigations. It also documents routine state persecution for protesting against the regime’s election fraud, all under the guise of combating extremism and terrorism.

The extrajudicial ‘extremist’ list run by the Ministry of Internal Affairs currently exceeds 2,300 individuals, including a dozen journalists. Over 200 names were added in the month of December alone. The ‘terrorist’ list, which the Belarusian KGB oversees, now includes close to 250 Belarusians as well as several Belarusian groups and organisations.

The regime applies ‘extremist’ and ‘terrorist’ labels to organisations, media outlets, books, and other materials. Recently, the popular Belarusian rock band Tor Band was labelled an ‘extremist group’. The musicians and their spouses were arrested in October 2022 and face criminal charges in relation to their pro-democracy songs.

The practice of recording ‘repentance / confession videos’, in which detainees confess to actions that the authorities consider offences, also continued. The videos are then spread online or used by state TV outlets to smear people and to instil fear. At least 52 people were victims of this outrageous practice in December alone, according to Viasna’s human rights report.

Hit the family – families of political prisoners under attack

Repression in Belarus has lately turned even uglier as illustrated by the tragedy of the Losik family. On 19 January 2023, Darya Losik, the wife of the political prisoner and blogger Ihar Losik, was sentenced to two years of imprisonment for ‘facilitating extremism’.

Regime authorities used this dubious charge to describe Darya Losik’s interview with Poland-based Belsat TV concerning about her jailed husband Ihar Losik. She ‘positioned herself as the wife of a political prisoner and also gave a negative assessment of the state bodies whose competence includes criminal prosecution and justice,’ according to the case files.

At the time, Losik was speaking out internationally for the release of her husband, who was previously sentenced to 15 years in prison on politically motivated charges. See details in our article here. The Losik family’s 4-year-old daughter has been left without her parents for the time being.

With this case, the Belarusian regime sent an intimidating signal to the families of other political prisoners not to dare to publicly question the legality of their cases or voice any criticism.

More cases in absentia

Lately, the Belarusian regime has begun the practice of ‘trials in absentia’ where criminal cases are heard without the defendants. The first verdicts in absentia were pronounced on 18 January against five individuals charged with publishing data on security officers involved in repression. Each of the five absent defendants was sentenced to 12 years in jail. These trials also illustrate a new trend: not only imposing prison sentences but confiscating property.

Another trial in absentia started on 17 January. It includes pro-democracy leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, opposition politician Pavel Latushka, and three other activists.

Three ‘creative’ legal novelties

Revoke citizenship

Over the last two months, the Belarusian regime has adopted other sinister but allegedly legal techniques.

Firstly, the regime has adopted legal amendments concerning the revocation of the Belarusian citizenship of ‘extremists’. Criminal charges such as ‘preparation for mass disorder’ or ‘defamation of the president’ could be justifications for this measure. Hence many exiled opposition figures, including activists and journalists, risk seeing their Belarusian citizenship taken away in the next months. Such moves bring back memories of the USSR exiling unwanted citizens and stripping them of their citizenship.

Confiscate property

Secondly, a newly adopted law regulates the confiscation of property ‘on the grounds of public necessity’. The law gives a deliberately vague definition of those who risk having their property confiscated. It only speaks of the ‘unfriendly actions’ of foreign countries and targets people somehow involved in such actions. According to legal experts, virtually any individual or company could be targeted by this vaguely formulated regulation.

Expand the use of death penalty

Thirdly, the state has broadened grounds for using the death penalty with the addition of ‘treason against the state’ if committed by a government official or a member of the armed forces.

This move may be an attempt to intimidate the state apparatus and the armed forces at a time where uncertainty reigns over any future involvement of Belarusian army units in Russia’s war against Ukraine.

See our other material on disinformation targeting democratic Belarus here.

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Cases in the EUvsDisinfo database focus on messages in the international information space that are identified as providing a partial, distorted, or false depiction of reality and spread key pro-Kremlin messages. This does not necessarily imply, however, that a given outlet is linked to the Kremlin or editorially pro-Kremlin, or that it has intentionally sought to disinform. EUvsDisinfo publications do not represent an official EU position, as the information and opinions expressed are based on media reporting and analysis of the East Stratcom Task Force.

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