SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project investigates and reports attacks on higher education with the aim of raising awareness, generating advocacy, and increasing protection for scholars, students, and academic communities. Learn more.

Date of Incident: August 28, 2020

Attack Types: Imprisonment | Prosecution

Institution(s):Belarusian State University

Region & Country:Europe | Belarus

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On August 28, 2020, police reportedly arrested Belarusian State University (BSU) professor Sviatlana Volchak and her husband in apparent retaliation for their alleged participation in nationwide protests over the re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko.

The official results of the August 9 election had President Alexander Lukashenko, who first took office in 1994, winning reelection for a sixth term with more than 80% of the vote. However, critics from inside Belarus, as well as international observers, immediately condemned the result, charging that the election was marked by widespread electoral fraud. Concerns about a fraudulent election triggered mass demonstrations across the country involving hundreds of thousands of protesters. In the days that followed, police responded by arresting and using violent force against thousands of people.

Volchak is the coordinator of the strike committee at BSU, which authored a petition demanding that the BSU administration take action to end the violence against protesters and civilians, secure the release of people who were detained or arrested for their protest activity, and support fair elections, among other things. The strike committee reportedly collected signatures on August 19 during a campus protest and submitted the petition to the BSU administration on August 28.

Later that evening, police reportedly arrested Volchak and her husband, Mikhail Volchak, on charges of “participating in an unauthorized mass event,” at their home. They confiscated phones, laptops, and documents belonging to the Volchaks. On August 31, the Ivanovo district court found Volchak guilty of sharing information about a protest planned on August 23 in a chat with BSU faculty and students, and accused Mikhail Volchak of spreading information about the protest under a pseudonym, which Mikhail denied. The court subsequently sentenced both Sviatlana and Mikhail Volchak to fifteen days of administrative arrest.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the arrest and prosecution of a scholar and her spouse in apparent retaliation for the nonviolent exercise of the right to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly — conduct that is expressly protected under international human rights instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Belarus is a party. State authorities have an obligation to refrain from restricting the rights to freedom of expression and association, so long as they are nonviolent and responsible. In addition to the harm to the immediate victims, such actions, when directed against members of the higher education community, undermine academic freedom and democratic society generally.

Correction (December 2, 2021): An earlier version of this report referred to Sviatlana Volchak as “Svetlana Volchek,” an incorrect transliteration of her Belarusian name.