As of today, there are 1,745 political prisoners in Belarus, claim Dissidentby. Human rights activist project Dissidentby devotes itself to the spread of information and support for those prosecuted by Lukashenka's regime. They count everyone who had been prosecuted because of their political stance, not only based on political articles in the Criminal Code, as political prisoners. Global Voices interviewed one of the founders over email. For reasons of safety, the interviewee asked to remain anonymous. The interview has been edited for clarity.
Global Voices (GV): How did the idea to create an organization (initiative and website) come about?
Dissidentby (D): We are street activists, engaged in activities such as distributing leaflets, performing, and participating in protests. Our focus has always been on supporting those in need, particularly those associated with human rights centers. However, over time, we noticed that certain individuals were being left behind. After 2014, in Ukraine, Lukashenko ordered the removal of football fans by any means necessary. Our anti-fascist friends from MTZ-RIPO (formerly the Partizan club) also became targets. The authorities dug up an old case involving a clash between anti-fascists and Nazis, where a trolleybus window was broken. In 2016, they conducted mass arrests, subjecting the arrested individuals, including children, to physical and psychological torture and threats. Six people were eventually sentenced to prison terms ranging from four to 12 years. Although the case had political implications, human rights centers refused to acknowledge the anti-fascists as political prisoners, dismissing them as mere hooligans. We strongly disagreed, recognizing the political motivations behind their imprisonment, witnessing the torture, attending court hearings, and advocating for their cause. However, our efforts to engage in dialogue with the human rights centers were met with refusal, leaving the tortured individuals without support. Determined to assist these people, we established ourselves as an informal human rights group in 2017, eventually taking shape as Dissidentby in 2019.
GV: What are the main project of your organization?
D: Our human rights work in Belarus involves direct action. We engage in activities such as collecting resources, learning to purchase necessary items, packaging cigarettes, and communicating with the families of political prisoners. We organize solidarity events, sign postcards, discuss the plight of prisoners, arrange concerts to raise awareness, and carry out actions like launching a live stream on Instagram outside detention centers during significant occasions. Inspired by Vladimir Akimenkov, a participant in the Bolotnaya Square protests, we adopted the practice of collecting donations for prisoners. Given our reputation as activists and the trust people have in us, our endeavors have been successful. Unfortunately, in 2020, there was a complete collapse of the legal system, and our experiences and practices became even more relevant. We call ourselves the Antifund because our approach is focused on distributing resources rather than accumulating them. This decentralized network ensures sustainability, capable of functioning independently of specific organizations or initiatives.
GV: How many people support you, who are they in general? How do you finance your projects? How can you be supported?
D: Our team consists of five individuals, but we receive support from many others who assist us both within Belarus and abroad. We rely on horizontal connections, inviting people to contribute as much as their personal resources allow. They can offer one-time help or become Guardians, providing ongoing support to a designated prisoner. Our team constantly works to expand the range of available assistance tools, which can include writing letters, attending court proceedings, sharing information, supporting families, directly aiding prisoners, becoming a Guardian, or offering job opportunities to those repressed by the regime. All these options are accessible through our website, dissidentby.com.
GV: What would you like to achieve?
D: Our primary goal is to democratize human rights knowledge and solidarity tools, emphasizing that formal education or certification as a “human rights activist” is not necessary. We consider ourselves human rights activists of the new era because we have a different perspective on recognizing individuals as political prisoners. The system has adapted, not only in Belarus but elsewhere as well. People can now be provoked and imprisoned not solely for engaging in protest actions, but under charges like “hooliganism” or “tax evasion.” In response, we must remain flexible and proactive. To address this issue, we formed a coalition with various organizations, initiatives, and Belarusian diasporas. Together, we developed a statement advocating for a new approach to identifying people as political prisoners. We welcome discussions with anyone who shares our vision of the current situation.
GV: New details constantly appear in the news about the repressive methods of the Lukashenka regime, which are not known outside the country. Can you tell us about them?
D: In Belarus, we once viewed North Korea as a distant and seemingly crazy place. Now, the country is moving in a similar direction. Every time we read the news, we are horrified by the extent of torture that the dictator has “legitimized.” The regime has introduced new classifications such as “extremists,” “terrorists,” “extremist groups,” and “extremist materials.” These lists are regularly updated with unwanted content and people. Individuals face restrictions on financial transactions and the exercise of their civil rights. Organizations face criminal or administrative prosecution for reposting their materials or receiving likes. Currently, security forces target those who donate to solidarity funds through Facebook. They arrest these individuals, seize all their money, and demand payments ranging from USD 5,000 to 7,000 as “compensation.” This practice effectively restricts personal freedom, subjecting individuals to torturous conditions until they pay. It is a form of extortion. Consequently, people in Belarus live in constant terror, fearing a system that can arbitrarily target anyone.
GV: Can you tell us what other repressions people accused of political cases go through?
D: Persecution for political reasons takes various forms, including police break ins, house and apartment vandalization, theft of savings, confiscation of equipment, beatings, torture, threats, harassment, forced confessions on video, and placement in inhumane conditions without access to basic hygiene items and medication. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) commonly occurs as a result of encounters with security forces, pretrial detention centers, and correctional facilities.
GV: What kind of prison terms are now given to people on political matters?
D: In 2020, prison terms ranged from one to five years. Now, double-digit sentences have become the norm, with acts of sabotage often resulting in 20-year imprisonments.
GV: How do the families of people convicted of political cases live?
D: The experience of imprisonment affects everyone involved. It tests and stresses the prisoners, as well as their families. Having support makes it easier for prisoners to access necessary resources while incarcerated and maintains their connection to the outside world through family, lawyers, and letters. Families, in turn, are forced to adapt their lifestyles, as prisoners always incur unforeseen costs. I could discuss the problems from various angles indefinitely, but one thing is clear: incarceration radically alters the lives and environments of all those affected. These individuals require support and understanding, which is what our initiative and others like it aim to provide, alongside self-organized solidarity groups formed by relatives and caring individuals.
GV: Is it easy for Belarusians who have left to obtain refugee status? In which countries?
D: Belarusians face relatively fewer legal obstacles when attempting to enter European territories and gain legal status compared to people of different ethnic backgrounds and cultures. Men, women, and children continue to live and die on the Belarusian-Polish border, highlighting the pressing issues surrounding migration and borders during times of political and climate crises.
GV: Are there any organizations still working in Belarus and helping the victims of the regime? How do they work? Is there an opposition in Belarus now?
D: The opposition in Belarus is either in exile or imprisoned. There are no NGOs, independent media, opposition parties, or organizations left in the country. Those who managed to evade imprisonment are compelled to work from abroad.
GV: Do you think there is a chance that political prisoners in Belarus will be released from prison? When?
D: Predicting release dates is challenging and falls within the purview of politicians and political organizations. Anything can happen at any moment. We consider ourselves doctors on one of the most critical fronts in the fight for justice, providing aid to civil and political activists behind bars. Our dissidents are heroes, and their actions fill the progressive world with pride.