(New York, NY) — In the lead up to Belarus’ presidential election this August, the Belarusian PEN Center and PEN America condemn the harassment, detention, and abuse of writers who’ve spoken out against limits to free expression amid the campaign. At least three writers have been punished for airing their views in recent weeks.

“The Belarusian authorities’ recent actions underscore their blatant disregard for the rule of law and the fundamental free expression rights of Belarusian citizens,” said Polina Sadovskaya, PEN America’s Eurasia program director. “We strongly condemn the unwarranted harassment faced by individuals, including writers, who merely voiced their opinion and urged the Belarusian authorities to cease the persecution of dissidents. Speaking one’s mind should never serve as a reason for persecution.”

The Belarusian PEN Center published the following statement, and PEN America is reproducing it here in solidarity. It has been lightly edited for clarity.

Over the past month, Belarusian human rights organizations have repeatedly condemned the persecution of activists, alongside other human rights violations, and demanded an end to the intimidation and pressure put on people for participating in the electoral campaign.

The Belarusian PEN Center stresses that cruel and inhumane treatment and torture applied to civil activists, bloggers, members of the presidential contenders’ teams, as well as writers, including the winners of the Belarusian PEN’s awards, are unacceptable.

On June 7, the police detained Volha Nikalaychyk, winner of the 2018 Francišak Aliachnovič Award, and Pavel Seviarynets, winner of the 2007 Aleś Adamovič Literary Award and the 2014 Francišak Aliachnovič Award.

Pavel Seviarynets was detained near his house after attending a legitimate pre-election demonstration near the Kamaroúski Market in Minsk. He was taken to a pre-trial detention center on Akrescina Street and held there until a court hearing. Minsk’s Frunzenski District Court ruled to sentence Pavel to 15 days of administrative arrest. Parcels from his relatives were not allowed “due to the epidemiological situation.” Pavel’s wife, Volha Seviarynets, says that Pavel has been sentenced to at least 45 days, but as more proceedings are expected soon, more days of detention may be added. The family has no information about the exact number of days he might be detained nor about the status of his trial. Volha also says that Pavel “had all his personal belongings, including a toothbrush, warm clothes, personal care items taken from him.” On two occasions, he was placed in a cold disciplinary cell.

Volha Nikalaychyk was forcibly detained by plainclothes persons and riot police officers at a bus stop. In front of acquaintances, she was pushed into a blue van and driven in an unknown direction. The detention, which appears more like an abduction, took place near the Kamaroúski Market in Minsk. Before attending a demonstration there, Volha had published a video appeal on the internet, calling for others to sign for alternative candidates, “beat the drums, recite poems, and sing the song ‘Destroy the Walls of Prison.'” On June 8, Peršamajski District Court of Minsk sentenced Volha Nikalaychyk to 15 days of detention in addition to a 13 day sentence handed down this winter. Volha is a documentary film director known for her films about political prisoners, “Heart Behind Bars” and “Liberation.” She has health problems, which are likely to deteriorate in a prison cell lacking fresh air and drinking water.

In another development, writer and teacher Hanna Seviarynets has been persecuted after publishing a poem ending with the following lines: “Don’t think about me, shoot. But think about Kolya.” The poem is a response to President Aliaksandr Lukashenka’s public speech, in which he mentioned a possible use of weapons against peaceful protesters. On June 10, the National Library of Belarus removed from its website the article titled “Creative Findings and Gifts of Hanna Seviarynets,’” dedicated to the poetry of the 1920s and published in Zviazda newspaper on June 9, 2020. On June 11, a representative of the school where Hanna was employed told her that her employment contract would not be renewed because a teacher “has no right to criticize the authorities.”

The chairwoman of Belarusian PEN Svetlana Alexievich said:

“Within the past several days, we have found ourselves in a country where none of the principles of humanism are working. Now, each of us has a choice to make: in what country do we want to live in the future, in a country of fair elections or country where there is no choice? The greater number of us is on the side of freedom, the stronger we are. Alone, the bravest of us will be defeated. For us to win, all people have to overcome their fear.”

The Board of the Belarusian PEN Center protests against pressure, intimidation, and inhumane treatment of people in connection with the expression of their views and participation in legitimate gatherings, and calls on the authorities to respect human rights and show a humane attitude.