Belarusian students are being arrested on criminal charges, prosecuted for peaceful activism and expelled from educational institutions, in retribution for their involvement in the continuing protest movement against the widely-contested official presidential election results of August 2020, Amnesty International said today.
In a new publication the organization describes brutal reprisals against students and reveals the disruptive impact of the state’s repression of academic life in Belarus.
“Students and teachers who protested across Belarus began their current academic year in a country radically transformed by events over the summer. From the outset, it was clear that their dissent would not be tolerated by either the authorities or many university administrations. On 27 October, Alyaksandr Lukashenka called for universities to dismiss them. We then saw with dismay how universities did exactly this to scores of students,” said Aisha Jung, Amnesty International’s Senior Campaigner on Belarus.
As of 17 May 2021, according to the Belarusian Students’ Association, an independent student union, at least 466 students have been detained, almost a third of whom are women. Many were put under administrative detention or fined an average of 120 Euros, a quarter of the average monthly salary in Belarus. At least 153 students have been arbitrarily expelled from universities and many have fled to neighbouring countries fearful for their safety. Forty-two students have become suspects in criminal cases and six have been sentenced to terms of imprisonment.
In one of the most brazen attacks on student organizations, the authorities launched a criminal investigation against 11 student activists and one teacher, many of whom were apprehended at their homes on 12 November 2020, a date which has since become known as “Black Thursday.” Their trial started on 14 May and is expected to continue until mid-June. All are facing charges under Article 342 of the Criminal Code of Belarus (“organization and preparation of actions that grossly violate public order”) which carries a prison sentence of up to two years.
Anastasia Bulybenka, 19, is one of the defendants. On the day of her arrest, Anastasia was sleeping in her bed in the apartment she shares with her mother when she heard a voice telling her to get up. She opened her eyes to see six unknown men standing around her bed after they had forced entry into her apartment. Anastasia has been held in pre-trial detention since her arrest more than six months ago – in all that time, her mother, Aksana, has been granted only one forty-five minute meeting with her.
“For me, the whole world stopped, and I just looked at her … She is a grown up now, the child was completely gone from her face. And she wrote this to me later in a letter saying, ‘I left our home on 12 November as a child and I will return as an adult,’” Aksana told Amnesty International recalling that meeting.
The targeting of politically active students and teachers is not a new tactic of the Belarusian authorities or educational establishments. However, as with all those currently speaking out against the government in the context of the presidential election, the scale of harassment, persecution and violence against them is unprecedented in Belarus’ post-independence history.
Amnesty International calls on the Belarusian authorities to immediately end the repression against students, academics and all peaceful protesters.
“The Belarusian authorities must abide by their obligations under international human rights law and respect students’ rights to peacefully express their opinions, together or in association, and to peacefully demonstrate without fear of harassment or reprisals,” said Aisha Jung.
“We call on student unions and student leaders across the world to show solidarity with their peers in Belarus and demand that their countries’ authorities take immediate steps to put pressure on Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s government to end the strangulation of public life, of academic life, of the brightest youth in the country.”
This campaign briefing is the sixth in a series of briefings, part of the #StandWithBelarus campaign, which Amnesty International is producing to highlight how different sectors of Belarusian society are being targeted by the repressive government of Alyaksandr Lukashenka, after he claimed victory in the 9 August 2020 presidential election despite mounting evidence of mass electoral fraud. The human rights crackdown in Belarus following the election has gone far beyond targeting “the usual suspects” of the political opposition, independent media and civil society.