During the current political crisis, Belarusian cultural figures have experienced unprecedented pressures for openly expressing their views against repression, violence and election fraud. The fact that most cultural institutions in Belarus are under government control makes the cultural sphere especially vulnerable to repression.
An extreme example is the firing of all members of the famous Yanka Kupala National Theatre, which celebrated its centenary this year, after they spoke out against the use of torture by Belarusian police. Another example is the threat to end the contracts of employees of the Belarusian State Philharmonic because of their participation in the protests by simply walking along the streets of Minsk and singing in support of protesters. One more example concerns art historian, Mikita Monič [Nikita Monich], who was fired from the National Art Museum after he had published his poem addressing and criticising Alexander Lukashenka. These are just a few examples of the numerous attacks against writers, artists, and cultural workers whose cases PEN Belarus is monitoring.
PEN Belarus members and laureates of the Centre’s awards have also been the target of the repressions:
- On October 9, Volha Šparaha [Olga Shparaga], a philosopher and member of PEN Belarus, was detained and sentenced to 15 days of administrative arrest. After her release, Olga received a notice of another 12 days of arrest and has had to leave the country.
- On October 21, another PEN Belarus member, poet Dzmitry Strocaŭ [Dmitry Strotsev] disappeared. He was found in Akrestsina detention centre the following day and was sentenced to 13 days’ detention. During his kidnap he was hooded and handcuffed, then taken to the KGB (Committee for State Security). He is now free.
- In Hrodna, two laureates of PEN Belarus awards, historians Aleś Smaliančuk [Ales Smalianchuk] and Aleś Kraŭcevič [Ales Krautsevich], were detained and fine, in Minsk a laureate of PEN Belarus award, journalist Nasta Zacharevič [Anastasia Zakharevich] was detained for the second time.
These are only some of the most recent examples of repressions against writers and cultural figures.
Intellectuals and civic leaders — amongst whom are the founders of the PEN Belarus Centre — have consistently taken to the streets on critical and momentous occasions, defending fundamental rights in Belarus.
Today, cultural figures have become one of the key forces in the peaceful resistance, with writers, actors, musicians, and artists using their artforms as a form of protest, staging performances, concerts, readings, and other forms of cultural actions in support of the protesters.[sw2] While their peaceful actions have only called for fair elections, free expression, and an end to violence, they have been regularly detained since the beginning of the protests, along with other citizens of Belarus.
Furthermore, within the cultural sphere in Belarus, professional unions provide artists and cultural figures with little protection in the face of government intimidation. Officially recognised unions are often dominated with pro-government representatives, and independent unions are denied the ability obtain legal status. This result in limited avenues for advocacy, support, and collective action
PEN Belarus and civil society demands that the Belarusian authorities, given the unparalleled instances of mass violence and violations of human rights to:
- Stop violence against peaceful protestors
- Release all political prisoners
- Hold new, free elections
PEN Belarus further demands that the Belarusian authorities:
- Stop the intimidation, harassment, pressure, and use of force against cultural figures who use their art to peacefully express opinions that challenge the official state position.
- Stop the politically-motivated dismissal of cultural figures in the state-owned cultural institutions.
- Stop restricting access to public platforms for cultural figures with opposition views.
- Allow for the creation of independent unions to represent workers in the arts and culture sectors.
- Protect and promote artistic freedom and cultural rights defenders in accordance with the international human rights standards and protection mechanisms including recommendations by the UN Special Rapporteur on Cultural Rights.
We also appeal to the international cultural community to:
- Recognise cultural workers as a distinct vulnerable group that even in “peacetime” is functioning under adverse conditions and is “on the front line” during times of upheaval;
- To provide this group with psychological, legal, and logistical support for their activities and creative initiatives; and
- Also support initiatives that protect the human rights of cultural workers, as well as the collective rights and interests of cultural workers as a professional group.
PEN Belarus publishes a weekly newsletter that monitors attacks on arts and cultural workers, as well as reporting on the creative arts activism that challenges the repression. This newsletter Belarusian Culture in Times of Political Crisis can be accessed on the Belarusian PEN website.
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