According to human rights defenders organization Viasna, at least 207 people were detained after crossing the border with Belarus in 2023. Among them were citizens of Ukraine, Lithuania, and Russia, besides Belarusians. Almost all of the detainees were sentenced to fines and spending 24 hours in detention. At least 18 of them were sentenced under criminal articles, 12 of whom were sent to prison colonies. Viasna has collected all known information about the persecution of people returning to Belarus from abroad on their website.
Reasons for persecution may include photos from protests in 2020, donations, comments on social media, “extremist” reposts, photos with white-red-white symbolism, which are found in phones and social networks, and even photos from solidarity actions abroad. These are discovered by law enforcement in social networks during phone checks at the border, say the human rights defenders.
Read more: Without the ability to renew their passports abroad, Belarusians in exile are left in limbo
As Viasna reports, it is known that people are most often detained after returning from Lithuania, but checks and detentions are carried out at all functioning border checkpoints, including the border with Russia. Security forces remove people from buses, meet them at bus or railway stations, or come to their homes after they have returned.
As Viasna highlights, last year, the Belarusian authoritarian leader Alyaksander Lukashenka announced the creation of a commission to work with Belarusian emigrants that would inform those wishing to return to Belarus of the possibility of returning without ending up behind bars. Supposedly, the commission would carefully examine each of the applicants to prevent “extremists and terrorists” from entering Belarus. The commission ceased its operations at the end of 2023.
Another program, called “The Road Home” was created by Belarusian security forces, Viasna reports, at the end of 2021. It was supposedly “allowing those who left to return without consequences.” However, certain conditions were imposed on Belarusians, under which they could do this. This program operated until the end of 2022.
Read more: ‘People in Belarus live in constant terror, fearing a system that can arbitrarily target anyone’
But human rights activists from Viasna say they are aware of at least three cases where, despite the “agreements,” criminal cases were initiated against people who believed the authorities and returned to Belarus.
For instance, an administrator of protest chats, Tatyana Kurilina, took advantage of the “Road Home” program. However, she was eventually sentenced to four and a half years in a colony under 12 articles of the criminal code.
In November 2023, 30-year-old Igor Nemirovich, who returned to Belarus through an appeal to the “return commission,” was sentenced to one year in a colony for insulting Lukashenko, Viasna reports.
And. in December 2023, propagandists published an interview with Tatyana Sobol, who reportedly also returned to Belarus through the “commission.” The woman was forced to talk about how bad her life was abroad and how she, “under the influence,” participated in the 2020 protests. Sobol is now awaiting trial in Belarus.
Viasna also publishes detailed information about each of the cases when people returning to Belarus were sent to prisons, available on their website. People are sentenced to years in prison for sending chat messages or trying to donate USD 16 to Belarusians fighting for Ukraine (the transaction had not even been executed).