Release Detained Belarusian Students

Posted May 27, 2021

Scholars at Risk has sent to Belarusian authorities the below letter raising concern over the detention of a growing number of students in apparent retaliation for their nonviolent participation in protests across Belarus. SAR calls on Belarusian authorities to secure their immediate release and, pending this, to ensure their well-being while in prison, as well as access to medical care, legal counsel, and family.

You can support detained students in Belarus by signing this letter of appeal in your own name.


Via email to the Honorable Alexander Lukashenko, President of the Republic of Belarus

May 27, 2021

RE: Release Detained Belarusian Students

Your Excellency:

I write on behalf of the Scholars at Risk Network to express grave concern over the detention of a growing number of students in apparent retaliation for their nonviolent participation in protests across Belarus. I respectfully urge you to secure their immediate release and, pending this, to ensure their well-being while in prison, as well as access to medical care, legal counsel, and family.

Scholars at Risk (SAR) is an international network of more than 500 universities and colleges in 42 countries dedicated to protecting the human rights of scholars around the world, and to raising awareness, understanding of, and respect for the principles of academic freedom and its constituent freedoms of expression, opinion, thought, association, and travel. In cases like this, involving alleged infringement of these freedoms, Scholars at Risk investigates, hoping to clarify and resolve matters favorably.

SAR understands that the official results of the August 9, 2020 election had President Lukashenko, who first took office in 1994, winning re-election for a sixth term with more than 80% of the vote. Election workers and activists from inside Belarus, as well as international observers, condemned the result, charging that the election was marked by widespread electoral fraud. We further understand that concerns about a fraudulent election triggered mass demonstrations across the country involving hundreds of thousands of protesters. Many of the protests were organized by students. Police responded to nationwide protests by arresting and using violent force against thousands of people. As of May 17, 2021, over 460 students have been detained and over 150 students were expelled from their universities for their alleged participation in protests.[1] Most recently, on May 23, Belarusian authorities forced a Ryanair plane to land in Minsk and arrested journalist Roman Protasevich and Sofia Sapega, a European Humanities University (EHU) student who was preparing to defend her master’s thesis. Among the many other detained students are Maryja (also written as Maria and Marfa) Rabkova and Yahor Kanetski (also written as Kanevsky).

Ms. Rabkova is a third-year student at the International Law and European Union Law program at EHU, in Lithuania, and the coordinator of the Volunteer Service at Human Rights Center Viasna. In that capacity, Ms. Rabkova has monitored nationwide protests calling for President Lukashenko’s resignation. On September 17, 2020, officers from the Main Directorate for Combating Organised Crime and Corruption (GUBOPiK), driving in multiple vans, followed Ms. Rabkova and her husband, Vadzim Zharomsky while they were en route home, forced them to pull over, and arrested them. The GUBOPiK officers brought Ms. Rabkova to a detention facility on a charge of “education or other preparation of persons for participation in mass riots or financing such activities” (Article 293 of Belarus’s Criminal Code). Meanwhile, they took Mr. Zharomsky to his and Ms. Rabkova’s apartment, where they conducted a search and seized various personal belongings. The GUBOPiK officers later released Mr. Zharomsky. On September 19, Ms. Rabkova was transferred to Minsk Detention Center No. 1, where she remains as of this letter. On February 11, 2021, Ms. Rabkova received an indictment containing two additional charges: “participating in a criminal organization” (Criminal Code Article 285(2)) and “inciting racial, national, religious or other social hostility by a group of individuals” (Criminal Code Article 130(3)).

Mr. Kanetski is a fifth-year student of the Faculty of Biology at Belarusian State University (BSU), a member of the Belarusian Students’ Association (BSA), and the vice-chairman of the Free Trade Union, a student trade union at BSU. On November 12, 2020, police conducted a series of house raids on the homes of members of the BSA and took five BSA members into custody, including Mr. Kanetski on a charge of “organizing and preparing in group actions that grossly violate public order” (Criminal Code Article 342(1)). According to Mr. Kanetski’s friends and family, officers from the State Security Committee of the Republic of Belarus (KGB) tackled Mr. Kanetski to the floor and confiscated his phone, computer, money, and documents before taking him to the KGB remand prison. On November 20, Mr. Kanetski was transferred to the Minsk Pre-trial Detention Center No. 1, where he has gotten sick at least four times.

I welcome any additional information that may explain these events or clarify my understanding. Absent this, the detention and prosecution of Belarusian students engaged in nonviolent expression suggest a deeply troubling disregard for international standards of academic freedom, freedom of expression, and freedom of assembly, as guaranteed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Not only do these detentions harm the immediate victims; they also threaten to do irreparable harm to Belarus’s higher education sector, by silencing debate that develops society, and by damaging the sector’s international reputation.

I therefore respectfully urge you to prevent any further harm to the students, their institutions, and to the reputation of Belarus’s higher education sector, by directing, through all appropriate means, that responsible authorities immediately release all detained students, cease and dismiss any investigations, prosecutions, or legal, administrative or professional actions undertaken against students in apparent connection to their nonviolent expressive activity. Pending such action, ensure their well-being and access to legal counsel, family, and medical care.

I appreciate your attention to this important matter.

Sincerely,
Robert Quinn
Executive Director

CC:

The Honorable Igor V. Karpenko
Minister of Education of the Republic of Belarus

The Honorable Ivan Kubrakov
Minister of Internal Affairs of the Republic of Belarus

The Honorable Ivan Naskevich
Chair of the Investigative Committee

The Honorable Vladimir Makei
Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Belarus

The Honorable Michelle Bachelet
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

The Honorable Anaïs Marin
Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Belarus

The Honorable Valentin Rybakov
Permanent Representative of Belarus to the United Nations

The Honorable Ann Linde
Minister for Foreign Affairs of Sweden

The Honorable Josep Borrell Fontelles
European Commission High Representative/Vice President

The Honorable Robert Biedroń
Vice-Chair of the European Parliament Delegation for relations with Belarus

The Honorable Petras Auštrevičius
Standing Rapporteur on Belarus

The Honorable Dirk Schuebel
Head of European Union Delegation to Belarus

The Honorable Eamon Gilmore
European Union Special Representative for Human Rights

Dr. Wolfgang Benedek
Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Rapporteur

Ms. Karinna Moskalenko
UN Human Rights Office’s Fact-Finding Mission on Belarus
c/o Rupert Colville

Mr. Marko Milanović
UN Human Rights Office’s Fact-Finding Mission on Belarus

Ms. Susan Bazilli
UN Human Rights Office’s Fact-Finding Mission on Belarus

[1] Amnesty International, “We baptise you in the name of Saint Alyaksandr Lukashenka and the riot police,” May 24, 2021, http://eurasia.amnesty.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/crackdown-on-students-in-belarus.pdf.