Belarus has become “a conveyor belt of torture against political prisoners,” where worker and human rights activists face daily raids, arrests and lengthy prison terms for fighting for democracy and the right to freedom of association, said the wife of a leading dissident last week.
Natallia Pinchuk, whose husband is Nobel laureate and human rights activist Ales Bialiatski, visited the Solidarity Center and spoke to staff about her husband’s imprisonment and the Belarus government’s repression of trade union activists.
Known for his leadership of the Viasna Human Rights Center–which he founded in 1996 to support political prisoners and their families–Bialiatski is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence at a brutal penal colony in Horki for receiving international financial support for the organization. He was among a dozen activists the Belarus regime arrested in July 2021 during raids of activists’ homes and the offices of civil society organizations.
“Ales represents the tragic situation of political prisoners in Belarus,” Pinchuk said. She added that the government imprisons 10 to 15 people every day, a considerable number for such a small country, and still conducts raids against and imprisons union activists.
Pinchuck said she has been unable to get information on Bialiatski’s condition since he was placed in solitary confinement in October. He is ill, requiring daily medication that Pinchuk cannot provide to him because political prisoners are prohibited from receiving outside materials. Compounding the situation, political prisoners face violence perpetrated by prison officials.
“Political prisoners are beaten in showers. Other prisoners beat them regularly, and prison officials are instigating those beatings,” she said.
Belarus’ president, Alexander Lukashenko, has held power since 1994. In 1996, he changed the constitution to consolidate power in the office of the president, which sent thousands of Belarusians into the streets in protests that were violently suppressed. He later claimed a landslide victory in August 2020, sparking widespread claims of fraud and massive protests and strikes. Lukashenko’s regime responded to the 2020 protests with ruthless repression, leading to deaths, injuries and over 10,000 arrests.
In the wake of a new wave of prison sentences against union leaders and other activists arrested earlier this year, new Belarus worker rights organization Salidarnast is tracking and disseminating updates on union political prisoners’ legal cases, and providing other worker rights news.
Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions (BKDP) President Aliaksandr Yarashuk, jailed since April and facing 14 years in prison, was elected in absentia to an ITUC vice-presidency at the organization’s 5th World Congress last month, reports Salidarnast.
Extraordinary mistreatment of two jailed union leaders, Leanid Sudalenka and Volha Brytsikava, for which Brytsikava reportedly started a hunger strike on November 8 and was released last week after having spent more than 105 days behind bars this year–including 75 consecutive days in the spring
Continuation of a ten-person trial associated with worker organization Rabochy Rukh for which the accused are facing prison sentences of up to 15 years for high treason, among other charges
Grodno Azot fertilizer factory worker and chairperson of the independent trade union there, Andrei Khanevich, whose phone was tapped by Belarusian special service, sentenced to five years in prison for speaking with a BelSat TV reporter
Belarusian Independent Trade Union (BNP) Vice Chairperson and Chairperson of the Local Trade Union at Belaruskali fertilizer factory, Aliaksandr Mishuk—detained since May—sentenced to two and a half years’ imprisonment
Free Trade Union of Metalworkers (SPM) Deputy for Organizational Work Yanina Malash—mother of a minor child and detained since April—sentenced to one and a half years’ imprisonment
Vital Chychmarou, a former engineer fired in 2020 for trade union activities and manager of an SPM organization, sentenced to three years of home confinement
Free Trade Union of Metalworkers (SPM) Trade Union Council Secretary Mikhail Hromau—detained since April—sentenced to two and a half years of home confinement
Genadz Bedzeneu, who attempted to start a local union for Polotsk stall market workers, arrested.
Salidarnast is filling an information void created after the Lukashenko government in July forcibly shut down the BDKP and its affiliates, compounded by the detention of dozens of journalists and media workers with other civil society defenders. The number of political prisoners in Belarus stood at almost 1,500 in November, reports the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ); up from 1,000 in February. The Belarus Supreme Court in July dissolved the BKDP and its four affiliates: BNP, the Union of Radio and Electronics Workers (REP), Free Trade Union of Belarus (SPB) and SPM.
Salidarnast on December 1 flagged the arrest of at least five people at the Miory steel plant, warning of imprisonment risk for up to ten thousand people who contributed to the “Black Book of Belarus” which identified riot police.
“Despite the destruction of the independent trade union movement, workers in Belarus remain the force which can resist the dictatorship,” says Salidarnast.
The repression and eventual dismantling of the independent Belarus union movement began after hundreds of thousands of people, often led by union members , many of them women, took to the streets in 2020 to protest elections in which President Alexander Lukashenko declared himself winner in a landslide victory amid widespread allegations of fraud. The BKDP—the first Belarus union to be independent of government influence in the post-Soviet era—was founded 29 years ago and has been a member of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) since 2003.
Hear more about workers’ fight for freedom by listening to a Solidarity Center podcast interview in which now-imprisoned BDKP Vice President Sergey Antusevich in 2021 spoke passionately about workers taking to the streets in defense of democracy. Antusevich has been jailed pending trial since April 2022.
In April, at least 18 union leaders were recently arrested in Belarus, where an autocracy has run the country since the fall of the Soviet Union. Among those arrested was Sergey Antusevich, vice president of the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions, who was a guest on The Solidarity Center Podcast in 2021. On the show, re-aired here, Antusevich spoke passionately about how Belarusian workers took to the streets to protest fraudulent elections in 2020 that meant the country’s autocrat would continue in power. ”
In a letter to Belarus Prime Minister Roman Golovchenko and Head of the Administration of the President Igor Sergeyenko, the AFL-CIO condemned the recent detention of 17 trade union leaders who represent their country’s independent labor movement and the shuttering of union offices there.
Calling for an immediate release of all those detained and resumption of the activities of the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions (BKDP) and its affiliate unions, the AFL-CIO letter cites “a troubling increase in anti-union harassment” in the country and points to an international labor movement protest against anti-union repression in Belarus.
Those arrested and detained include BKDP President Aleksandr Yarashuk and Vice-President Sergei Antusevich, as well as other activists, independent journalists and legal experts. The offices of the BKDP have been closed, as have the offices of its four affiliated unions.
The government of Belarus has been repeatedly called out by the International Labor Organization (ILO) for its systematic violations of freedom of association and core labor standards.
Three union leaders and a worker rights activist were arrested in Belarus, and the government is proposing a new law tightening restrictions on public gatherings as it ramps up repression against unions and their members who are demanding free and fair elections and democratic freedoms like the right to form unions.
Anna Kalupakho, Sergei Lapunov and Andrei Schkirenko of the Belarusian Independent Trade Union (BDP) were arrested in recent days, along with Aleksandr Kashpul, an activist at JSC “Naftan,” an oil refinery and petrochemical complex where workers went on strike.
They say they were given no reason for their arrest.
Four striking Naftan workers also are on trial, along with Kalupakho, a strike committee member at the Belarus metallurgical plant in Zhlobino, union leaders say. (Support Naftan workers here.)
Police also came to the local union’s office at Naftan, questioning staff about official permits for the union premises. Since then, several police members have patrolled the building, according to union leaders.
“At the moment, we are experiencing an escalation of tensions on the part of the Belarusian government,” says a leader of the independent union movement. “A sharp turn for the worst has occurred at JSC Naftan. The enterprise administration uses the police and the prosecutor’s office to pressure the striking workers and force them to quit,” he says.
Government Seeking to Further Restrict Freedom to Gather
The government is now seeking to amend the country’s public demonstration law to legally permit employers to fire, without prior union consent, anyone arrested for participating in a protest event. Proposed amendments also would allow unions to be punished if any of their members participate in a public demonstration that has not received prior approval from government authorities.
“The above changes in the legislation heavily aggravate the already depressing situation with workers and trade unions rights in Belarus,” writes Aliaksandr Yarashuk, BKDP president, in a letter to the International Labor Organization (ILO), which is part of the United Nations. “They allow the government to violate grossly and shamelessly the norms of the fundamental ILO Conventions.”
(Siarhei Antusevich, BKDP vice president, describes workers’ ongoing struggle for democracy in conversation with Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau at The Solidarity Center Podcast. Listen here.)
Belarus Independent Unions Win International Prize
The Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions (BDKP) and its three affiliates, BDP, the Free Metal Workers’ Union (SPM) and Belarusian Radio and Electronic Industry Workers’ Union (REP) last week were awarded the 2021 Arthur Svensson international prize for trade union rights for their fearless struggle for democracy and union rights.
“The independent trade union movement has been central in the fight against the falsification of election result and the fight for democracy,” says Frode Alfheim, president of the Norwegian Industri Energi union, which established the prize to promote and strengthen trade unions and trade union rights internationally.
Workers at factories across Belarus have been fired and sometimes arrested for taking part in pro-democracy rallies. For instance, at the Belarus Metallurgical Plant (BMZ), where workers went on strike in August, four workers were sentenced to more than two years in prison for the “organization of actions in gross violation of public order” in February, and the conviction was upheld in March. Many other strike participants and strike committee activists have been fired and the state-controlled courts have refused to reinstate them, according to union leaders. (Support BMZ workers here.)
Workers at other plants, who took part in an October national day of action in support of The People’s Ultimatum, have been fired and some imprisoned, including workers at the Grodno Azot plant. Thirteen fired employees at Grodno Azot plant have submitted a collective appeal, demanding reinstatement and calling out their dismissal as unjustified. (Support the Grodno Azot workers here.)
Global Condemnation for Attacks on Workers
The ILO issued a report in late March reinforcing documentation by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) on widespread arrests, prosecution and firing of workers engaged in strikes and pro-democracy rallies in Belarus, and government repression of basic civic freedoms, such as forming unions, bargaining collectively and striking.
Among other recommendations, the ILO “urges the government to investigate without delay the alleged instances of intimidation or physical violence through an independent judicial inquiry, in order to shed light on the facts and circumstances surrounding these acts, and to identify those responsible, punish the guilty parties and thus prevent the repetition of similar event.”
In August 2020, hundreds of thousands of people, often led by union members, many of them women, took to the streets to protest elections in which President Alexander Lukashenko declared himself winner in a landslide victory amid widespread allegations of fraud. Popular opposition candidate, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, was forced into exile, and the government has since arrested at least 30,000 thousand protestors, often torturing them in prison, and an unknown number have been killed.
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