(NEW YORK) — Ahead of the 3rd anniversary on Aug. 9 of the illegitimate presidential election in Belarus that kept President Alexander Lukashenka in power, PEN America on Monday raised concern over the growing repression and persecution of writers and intellectuals, and called for the reversal of blatant infringements of free expression.

“Belarusians are enduring profound restrictions of their fundamental rights and their cultural heritage is under serious threat and the world is not doing enough to preserve it. If we fail to protect Belarusian writers and artists, including those in exile, we will jeopardize the last brave and independent voices from Belarus and as a result, the battle for freedoms and democracy in the region.” said Polina Sadovskaya, PEN America’s Eurasia and advocacy director. “The Council of Europe, the European Union, and the OSCE, in which Belarus is a participating state, have the moral obligation to act. Special funding to protect Belarusian culture and more simplified visa procedures for writers fleeing Belarus are urgently needed. National governments must use bilateral and multilateral opportunities to explicitly call for the immediate and unconditional release of all writers and the cessation of human rights abuses against them. Silencing writers must cease.”

This week also marks two years since a court in Belarus formally dissolved PEN Belarus, PEN America’s sister center. PEN Belarus is a champion for free expression in Belarus, and has documented thousands of human rights violations against writers, artists, and other cultural workers which intensified since 2020. “Repressions against writers and other cultural figures did not stop for a day in Belarus. Belarusians now have no country which would be responsible for protecting and sustaining Belarusian culture and language. In Belarus, our culture and language are being destroyed or considered extremists as it happens with every dissenting voice and opinion.” said Taciana Niadbaj, president of PEN Belarus. PEN Belarus has also exposed the ongoing attacks on Belarusian culture and language and discrimination against the Belarusian-speaking population. Despite their liquidation, PEN Belarus also continues to uphold its commitment to support writers while in exile.

The mysterious death of artist and activist Ales Pushkin last month, in the Belarusian prison where he has been held for over two years, is another testament to the ruthlessness of the Lukashenka regime and the atrocious maltreatment of writers, artists, and political prisoners. We urge the Belarusian authorities to establish mechanisms to prevent all forms of abuse in custody. Families must also receive frequent updates on the health status of detainees and be allowed daily communications access.

Several imprisoned writers have received incredibly long sentences. Most recently in March of this year, 2022 Nobel Prize laureate, Ales Bialiacki was handed a 10 year sentence on politically-motivated “tax evasion” charges. Katsiaryna Andreeva (Bakhvalava) was convicted for treason in July of last year after she recorded the November 2020 protests and sentenced to more than 8 years in prison.

PEN America has been following these cases and others very closely and is deeply concerned about the punitive treatment of writers and journalists, which is a clear violation of international human rights norms.

According to PEN America’s latest Freedom to Write Index, Belarus imprisoned 16 writers and public intellectuals in 2022. This number has increased since 2021, pushing Belarus to the fourth worst jailer of writers worldwide after heavily populated countries such as China. In fact, Belarus counts the highest number of jailed writers per capita in the world, surpassing China, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. To learn more visit PEN.org

Contact: Suzanne Trimel, [email protected], 201-247-5057