Cultural workers in Belarus publish open letter amidst protests


Cultural workers in Belarus have collectively signed and circulated an open letter demanding a fair and transparent presidential election and deploring their government's use of excessive police force during last week's protests.

Belarus held a scheduled presidential election on Sunday 09 August, where president Alexander Lukashenko — the country's first president, continuously in power since 1994 — claimed a landslide victory with a reported 70-80% of the vote. The opposition, protesters and independent observers have called the election rigged and demanded a new round.

Lukashenko responded with a severe crackdown on protesters early last week, with over 6,000 reportedly arrested and two protesters dead. Meanwhile, Amnesty International is reporting horrifying testimonies of torture in detention centres by Belarusian authorities. Protesters have been posting photos of their bruised and injured bodies as proof of the excessive violence they were subjected to.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the 37-year-old leader of the opposition, has been forced to flee to Lithuania, from where she encourages people to protest peacefully. Indeed, tens of thousands of Belarusians have marched on Sunday asking for Lukashenko's resignation and free, fair elections. Protesters have been carrying flowers and balloons to show that their protests are peaceful. According to CNN, at least 50 policemen have lowered their shields and joined the anti-government protests.

Cultural workers in Belarus raise their voice against excessive police violence and the authoritarian regime in their country. Their open letter collected signatures last week and has been reproduced by several media outlets and cultural organisations outside of Belarus.

We reproduce an English translation of the letter here, as published on Ello by the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw:

"We, cultural workers of Belarus, are deeply shocked and outraged by the events of the last days in our country related to the elections of the President of the Republic of Belarus, and by the huge and unmotivated level of violence and aggression committed by the official authorities and law enforcement agencies against the people of our country.

The presidential elections held on August 9 were carried out without the participation of independent observers and with multiple recorded cases of irregularities and falsifications during the vote counting. No results were announced to citizens waiting outside many polling stations as electoral commissions quietly left their stations guided by the riot police. The security forces were also seen beating and detaining people who came to see the election results after the polling stations closure.

Starting from August 9, 2020, police and military have been applying an unprecedented level of force and brutality against peaceful citizens. They used specialized equipment, such as rubber bullets, stunning grenades, tear gas, water cannons, etc., as well as physical violence against unarmed people at peaceful rallies, thus violating civil rights guaranteed in accordance with the Article 35 of the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus. We demand launching an independent investigation into every act of brutality and violence committed by police structures.

As of today, the total number of detained citizens across the country stands at 7000. According to the eyewitnesses, people are held in inhuman conditions: up to 40-50 detainees are placed in cells designed to hold 10. This is especially dangerous and unacceptable in the light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The detainees are denied access to water, food, hygiene and medical care. Their families and friends are not informed about their location. They do not have access to legal assistance and are handled with physical and mental violence. There are detainees (men, women and teenagers) who didn’t take part in the peaceful protests but were targeted by the police in a random fashion and seized when they passed by on their way from work or walked a dog.

We demand an investigation into these atrocities and malfeasance committed by the law enforcement agencies.

We, the undersigned, cultural workers demand:

— To stop the acts of violence against civilians and remove the atmosphere of fear from the streets.

— To release all political prisoners and detainees.

— To hold new transparent elections of the President of the Republic of Belarus.

— To provide Belarusian citizens with free access to information and the right to peaceful assembly.

We consider the actions of the law enforcement agencies to be illicit, inadequate and offensive to the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus, according to which the individual, their rights, freedoms and guarantees for their attainment constitute the main goal and value of the society and the State (article 2 of the Constitution of Republic of Belarus)."

A version of the letter has been published with its signatories by Arterritory and Artleaks. At time of writing, the representatives of the authors of the letter have not responded for a comment.

Pictured: A protest banner with photos of bruises and severe injuries suffered by protesters in the hands of the Belarusian authorities during the August 2020 protests. Photo by Uladzimir Hramovich via Facebook.