(NEW YORK)— PEN America expressed horror today over the reported untimely death on Monday evening of artist Ales Pushkin, who died in intensive care under unclear circumstances in the Belarusian prison where he had been held on a bogus political charge since 2021. The free expression organization called for immediate steps to ensure writers, artists and other political prisoners are not subject to isolation and ill-treatment.

Julie Trebault, director of PEN America’s Artists at Risk Connection, said: “We are horrified by the untimely death of dissident artist Ales Pushkin. As a well-known painter, performance artist, and activist, Pushkin had long used his creativity and free expression to respond critically to President Alexander Lukashenka’s authoritarian leadership.”

She stated: “Given the Belarusian authorities’ practice of isolating political prisoners, Pushkin’s death is a distressing example of how the government violates human rights with impunity. We extend our deepest condolences to Pushkin’s family and loved ones. We urge the international community to support writers, artists, and other political prisoners at risk of further abuse in custody by creating mechanisms to insure that they are not subject to isolation and ill-treatment. The Belarusian authorities should provide information on the health status of political prisoners, urgently grant them access to doctors of their choice, restore their contact with their families and access to their lawyers.”

Pushkin was first jailed in 1988 for participating in a rally. Most recently, following the Belarusian government’s crackdown on protesters of the 2020 election, Pushkin was detained in 2021 for his portraits of Belarusian anti-Soviet partisans. For this, he was convicted of ‘rehabilitation of Nazism,’ a bogus charge that perverts his creative work and deflects attention from the true culprit—the Belarusian authorities denying brilliant artists, writers, and other cultural figures their right to free expression. 

Belarusian human rights organizations have identified at least 1,500 political prisoners in Belarus, and over 100 of them are cultural workers according to PEN Belarus. Human rights organization Viasna has also recently noted censorship and restriction of mail to political prisoners as a tactic of isolation by Belarusian prison authorities. 

PEN America’s latest Freedom to Write Index, the year-end count of imprisoned writers worldwide, found that 16 writers and public intellectuals were held in custody in Belarus in 2022. Many of these writers and public intellectuals were jailed in relation to their expression following the 2020 presidential election. Belarus was also one the top countries in PEN America’s Writers at Risk Database, with 33 writers and public intellectuals at risk of some form of persecution.

In 2022, 311 writers were jailed globally according to PEN America’s 2022 Freedom to Write Index. PEN America’s database contains 813 active cases from over 80 countries of writers, poets, online commentators, journalists at risk for their writing and expression. Throughout the year, PEN America documents cases of detained and threatened writers around the world and looks at emerging and country-specific trends that governments deploy in an attempt to muzzle writers and artists.

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 

PEN America leads the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC), a program dedicated to assisting imperiled artists and fortifying the field of organizations that support them. If you or someone you know is an artist at risk, contact ARC here.

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