Belarus: Education International calls for an end to crackdown on democratic forces

    Education International is calling for an end to the repression against students, workers, activists, and others who are fighting for democracy in Belarus and facing a nationwide crackdown. A series of repressive actions in recent weeks, from the arbitrary arrests of activists to the illegal raids on NGO’s, have raised the alarm and generated international censure.

    The crackdown is part of a continued effort by the Lukashenko regime to stay in power after losing the presidential election in August of 2020 and widespread demonstrations and nationwide protests that followed demanding the restoration of democracy. Alexander Lukashenko claimed without evidence that he was re-elected with 80.08 per cent of the vote over the opposition candidate, Svetlana Tikhanovskaïa, considered the actual winner.

    “The massive peaceful demonstrations and strikes in Belarus after the stolen election gave us hope that democracy would be restored. Less than a year later, we are seeing what happens when a dictator puts personal power before all else,” stated David Edwards, General Secretary of Education International. “Lukashenko’s actions display the weakness of a desperate tyrant.”

    Targeting students

    Students who were a significant force in the protests which followed the election have also been the targets of the regime. Many students were detained. Some were tortured. Repression across sectors increased and the population was terrorised. Political leaders of the opposition were imprisoned or forced to go into exile.

    Eleven student leaders and a university professor were arrested in November of 2020. In May of 2021, their trial began and they were accused of “the organisation and preparation of actions that grossly violate public order or active participation in these actions.” On 16 July, all but one were sentenced to 26 months in prison.

    The Belarus Students Association reports that over the last nine months 492 students have been detained, 160 have been expelled.

    In a video by the spokesperson of the opposition in exile, Pavel Latuschko, university administrators were exposed and denounced for having failed to support students during demonstrations and for actively collaborating with security forces. He charged that they summoned the riot squads, gave statements to the police, and fired teachers who objected to the violence. They also testified on behalf of the State during the trial against the students. Latuschko pointed out that universities have no autonomy as rectors are appointed personally by President Lukashenko. Four of these rectors were placed on a sanctions list by the European Union.

    GEW, an EI member organisation in Germany, declared their support for the convicted students and for the Belarus Students’ Association. They protested that in July, six lecturers and researchers from the Institute of Genetics and Cytology at the Minsk National Academy of Sciences (NASB) were forced to resign or dismissed. This action was also related to their protests after the election in August of 2020. The European Region of EI, the ETUCE, also supported the academics and students.

    Many lawyers defending students and other protesters had their licenses to practice law suspended or were disbarred. The fundamental right to a legal defence is being suffocated and lawyers are being punished for exercising their profession. The government no longer goes through the motions of fair trials and the rule of law.

    Attacks on journalists and their union

    In addition to the crackdown on students and their supporters, on 16 July, the authorities raided the opposition media Belsat as part of a larger pattern of harassment and detention of journalists.

    The European and International Federation of Journalists reported that “the Belarusian regime is intensifying its crackdown on journalists and their representative organisation, the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ). After searching and sealing BAJ’s offices on 14 July, the authorities blocked the organisation’s bank accounts on Tuesday 20 July.” They also indicated that 33 journalists are in captivity.

    Actions against human rights organisations and doctors

    Human rights and other organisations were also raided and many human rights activists have been detained. One human rights group, Viasna, lists 421 political prisoners and reports many new arrests and convictions.

    Being in the midst of a global pandemic has not slowed the repressive actions of the regime.

    Despite the rapid spread of COVID-19, a low rate of vaccinations, and shortage of medical personnel, over 70 medical professionals have lost their jobs in recent months, and eight medical students have been expelled from university. That is in addition to the 250 doctors who have been fined or held in detention centres, with some being beaten by security services. Some were arrested for expressing concern about the COVID response according to the Belarusian Medical Solidarity Foundation.

    International solidarity

    President Lukashenko continues to rule by generating fear, panic, and terror, but will not have the final say, according to those committed to democracy.

    “Repression, no matter how vicious and determined, does not mean that there is no hope. The people of Belarus know their power. They took to the streets. They struck. They joined independent unions. Women and young people, including many courageous students, took the lead,” reiterated David Edwards of Education International. “The situation will not change today. It may not change tomorrow, but it will change,” he added.

    Edwards reiterated that the people of Belarus have the support of international allies who will stand with them in these difficult times.

    “The struggle for democracy will continue. Liberation will come from within, but the people of Belarus must have the support and solidarity of the rest of the world, especially governments. They will continue to have our support until their journey to freedom is complete.”