Thank you for your continued support of the democratic aspirations of the Belarusian people and your work to preserve the independence and sovereignty of Belarus. The Belarus Freedom Forum seeks your help to urge U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the Department of Homeland Security to designate Belarus for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) in response to the extraordinary and temporary conditions that prevent the safe return of Belarusian citizens to their home country.
Belarusian residents and visitors to the U.S. need the protection of the United States from the ongoing politically motivated persecution of Belarusians returning to Belarus from abroad. The ongoing large-scale political turmoil in Belarus and the subsequent Russian invasion of Ukraine from the territory of Belarus increased the Lukashenka regime’s hostility and scrutiny towards Belarusians with connections to foreign states. Such hostility and unprecedented level of political repression prevent many Belarus nationals from returning to their home country from abroad due to credible threats of persecution and forced military conscription. Students, temporary workers, and other non-immigrant visitors to the United States from Belarus could not have anticipated such grave developments. Restrictions on mail services and travel between Belarus and the United States, shuttered consular services, and arbitrary detentions of people returning from abroad to Belarus make it impractical and dangerous to gather the evidence required for political asylum or other status adjustments.
All Belarusians who openly voice disagreement with the regime at home or abroad remain in danger of imprisonment and torture by the Lukashenka regime. In light of the above, until the rule of law is restored and the democratic principle of governing is reestablished in Belarus, Belarusians in the United States cannot safely return to their home country and need the protection of the United States government. Therefore, we urge the U.S. government to extend temporary protected status to Belarusians in the United States.
Human rights abuses in Belarus are documented in detail by numerous human rights organizations. You can find a short overview of the available facts in subsequent sections of this document.
Why should Belarus be designated for TPS?
Pervasive human rights abuses in Belarus following the fraudulent 2020 presidential election, including arbitrary arrests, torture, the destruction of civil society, liquidation of human rights organizations, repressions against free media and trade unions, detentions at border crossings, and a threat of mobilization, make a safe return of Belarusians visiting the U.S. to Belarus virtually impossible.
In March 2023, the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner released a report stating that “there are sufficient grounds to believe that systematic, widespread, and gross human rights violations have been and are being committed in Belarus.”
Here is a brief context of the events giving rise to the current perilous situation in Belarus, as well as details surrounding numerous cases of human rights abuses taking place in the country.
Violence Following the 2020 Presidential Election
In 2020, the Lukashenka regime falsified the presidential election results, violently and unlawfully usurped power in Belarus, and forced president-elect Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya to flee the country. Since then, the regime has used violence and brutal repression to suppress the democratic movement, imprisoned tens of thousands, and drove over 300,000 Belarusians into exile. One of the notable prisoners of the regime is Ales Bialiatski, a human rights activist and a Noble Peace Prize Laureate sentenced to 10 years in prison on politically motivated charges. All independent media, non-government, and cultural organizations have been outlawed and disbanded; elections of local officials have been suspended; voting abroad has been canceled; unconstitutional legislation has been adopted targeting political exiles with deprivation of citizenship and trial in absentia.
Suppression of Anti-War Protest
Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, the Belarusian authorities have been systematically targeting people voicing their opposition to providing Belarusian territory to the Russian invasion forces and servicing the Russian military in Belarus. More than 1500 people were arrested in the first 50 days of the invasion. Belarusian singer Meriem Herasimenka, sentenced for publicly singing a song in the Ukrainian language, and a 68 years-old woman, arrested for writing an anti-war inscription on a bus stop, are just a few examples.
In February 2022, the Lukashenka regime became a co-aggressor in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, allowing the use of Belarusian territory as a base and a launching ground for Russian forces and missiles fired at Ukrainian cities and villages. Citizens of Belarus protesting the war in Ukraine have been arrested, tortured in police custody, and sentenced to imprisonment. The regime signed amendments to Belarus’s criminal law introducing the death penalty for “attempted terrorism” to target anti-war activists. The ongoing war adds the risk of military conscription and mobilization, drawing Belarusians into participation in active combat and complicity in Russia’s war crimes.
Arbitrary Detentions, Arrests, and Political Prisoners
The regime organized a repressive system arresting anyone suspected of unloyalty to the regime. The regime continues persecuting workers, educators, doctors, artists, activists, human rights defenders, journalists – people from all walks of society. The security forces are scanning social media and analyzing photos with facial recognition technologies to arrest people connected to the 2020 protests on fabricated politically motivated criminal charges. Another form of persecution is politically motivated layoffs at state-owned and private companies and public education organizations.
The regime specifically targets lawyers defending political prisoners. Several lawyers were arrested and became political prisoners themselves. Many lawyers lost a right to the profession as the Belarus National Bar Association, controlled by the Lukashenka Ministry of Justice, revoked their licenses. Since August 2020, at least 70 lawyers have lost their licenses following arbitrary accusations from the Bar Association. Seven lawyers were arrested and sentenced on fabricated charges of “calls to actions damaging to Belarus national interests.” Also, the regime subjects lawyers to arbitrary detentions, searches, and administrative charges.
As of today, 1,460 political prisoners are subject to heinously long sentences, and tens of thousands of people have been processed through the penitentiary system, where they have been interrogated, threatened, and beaten. Those sentenced on politically motivated criminal charges have been subjected to physical and psychological torture.
The regime developed a sophisticated system of torture. Political prisoners experience humiliation, physical, sexual, and psychological violence, and abuse. For example, the prison administration isolated political prisoner Viktar Babaryka, a Belarusian banker and philanthropist who qualified for the presidential nomination in 2020 but was denied registration and deprived him of human communication by prohibiting other prisoners from talking or in any way communicating with him. Political prisoners are often beaten and forced to make false confessions recorded on videos and translated on state TV. In just one example of many, passwords and false confessions were forced out of journalist Mikola Dziadok using torture.
Railway workers who sabotaged equipment to stop shipments of Russian military gear for the Ukraine invasion were shot in the knees after being arrested by KGB. Prisoners report threats of rape, death by beating, or execution. Several prisoners were interrogated in the woods and threatened with guns. In the aftermath of the August 2020 repressions, human rights experts documented 450 cases of torture and maltreatment. Prisoners are routinely deprived of medical treatment, sleep, or regular sleeping supplies and items of personal hygiene. The regime threatens parents by rescinding their parental rights, taking children from families, and placing them in institutions.
Destruction of Civil Society
By September 2022, 646 non-profit civil society organizations went through forced liquidation in Belarus. Due to the regime pressure on staff members, 374 more non-profit organizations are going through self-liquidation. The repressions have reached an absurd level, with the authorities closing organizations such as the birds protection society, the Belarusian Language Society, and the children’s hospice.
Liquidation of Human Rights Organizations
In 2021, the Lukashenka regime liquidated several human rights organizations: Zvyano, Legal Initiative, and the oldest organization in Belarus - Belarus Helsinki Committee. Since 2021, in reprisal for their work, six members of the prominent Human Rights Center Viasna are behind bars in Belarus, including a 2022 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, Ales Bialiatski. Ales Bialiatski, detained on dubious charges, is on trial and facing 12 years in prison. The Lukashenka regime sentenced Marfa Rabkova, 28 years old human rights defender and coordinator of Viasna, to 15 years of imprisonment on fabricated criminal charges. As of 2023, no human rights organizations work in Belarus.
Suppression of Freedom of Speech and Media Freedom
Since the first days of the protest following the 2020 presidential election and in the aftermath, the security forces were given the green light to target journalists to stop the information flow. The authorities used brutal force, harassment, detentions, arrests, imprisonment, and politically motivated criminal persecution to silence journalists and shut down news outlets. A policeman intentionally shot Natalia Lubneuskaya, a reporter covering the protests, with rubber bullets. Several journalists were injured, and their equipment was broken or confiscated. Since August 2020, the Belarusian authorities have conducted more than 400 detentions of journalists. More than 300 journalists left Belarus to safeguard their lives, freedom, and health. Presently, 32 journalists are behind bars in Belarus. Chief executive of leading media platform TUT.BY Liudmila Chekina and chief editor Maryna Zolatava, arrested in May 2021, accused by the authorities of “incitement of hatred,” and sentenced to 12 years in prison, are recognized as political prisoners.
The regime dismantled and banned all independent Belarusian media organizations, accusing them of spreading false information. Since August 2020, major media outlets, such as BelaPAN, Belsat, Radio Svaboda (Belarus service of RFE/RL), and many Telegram media channels, have been classified as “extremist” organizations. People reposting information from those sources or giving interviews face persecution. Yahor Lebiadok, a military analyst and a political prisoner, is sentenced to five years behind bars for speaking to Euroradio, listed by the regime as “extremist.” Darya Losik, the wife of jailed RFE/RL journalist Ihar Losik, was sentenced to two years in prison on a charge of facilitating “an extremist activity” by speaking to news media Belsat. University professor, fired for her activist position, was later arrested and sentenced for providing an interview to Euroradio, labeled by Belarusian authorities as “extremist.”
Repressions Against Trade Unions
Since 2020 and onward, the Belarusian authorities have escalated the repression and intentionally dismantled all remaining independent trade unions in the country. In 2022, the Supreme Court of Belarus ordered the liquidation of the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions (BKDP) and its four members: the Belarusian Independent Trade Union (BITU), the Union of Radio and Electronics Workers (REP), the Free Trade Union of Belarus (SPB), and the Free Trade Union of Metalworkers (SPM). At least 15 trade union leaders and activists remain in jail. A political prisoner, Chairperson of BKDP, and the current member of the ILO Governing Body, Aliaksandr Yarashuk, was sentenced to 4 years in prison. Other prominent trade union members received sentences ranging from one and a half to 15 years in prison.
Politically-Motivated Trials in Absentia and Unconstitutional Deprivation of Citizenship
The Lukashenka regime amended the Belarus Criminal Code to allow criminal trials in absentia, i.e., without the accused present, targeting its exiled political opponents in July 2022. The amended Criminal Code sanctions trials in absentia for offenses often used to prosecute political activists and critics of the regime, including but not limited to “incitement of hatred,” “participation in mass protests,” “calling for sanctions” against the Lukashenka regime, etc.
Among the first targets of the newly introduced procedure are exiled vocal critics and opponents of the regime, such as Aliaksandra Herasimenia, a three-time Olympic champion in swimming, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the leader of the Belarus democratic movement and likely winner of the 2020 presidential elections, and prominent members of the Coordination Council, recognized by the United States government as a “legitimate institution to participate in a dialogue on a peaceful transition of power” in Belarus.
Further, in January 2023, the Lukashenka regime adopted changes to the Belarusian legislature, which now authorizes stripping Belarus nationals of their citizenship in direct violation of Belarus’ Constitution, which stipulates that “no one can be deprived of Belarusian citizenship.” The amended legislature authorizes the deprivation of Belarusian citizenship for a wide range of offenses, the kinds that are typically used for politically motivated prosecutions. The regime’s ability to arbitrarily impose statelessness is yet another powerful tool of reprisal against Belarus nationals opposing the usurper.
Detentions at Border Crossings
Between 2022 and thus far, 2023, numerous Belarusian citizens were detained while entering Belarus, mainly from Poland or Lithuania, with reasons to visit family, be present at funerals, renew passports, or receive medical treatment. Reasons for detentions include commenting or posting photos on social media to participating in the 2020 protests or solidarity events abroad. There are at least 58 known cases where people received sentences between one to five years imprisonment, home confinement with penal labor, or administrative detention and fines. In some instances, law enforcement destroyed detainees’ travel documents and passports after arrests.
Belarusian authorities created a commission for the repatriation of political exiles promising the safety to the repatriates upon return. However, people who took the regime’s promises for face value find themselves deceived by the regime. One known case is Tatsiana Kurylina, a protest chat room administrator. She chose to comply with the commission requirements and return to Belarus. Tatsiana was detained and charged under 12 criminal articles.
Co-aggression and Mobilization
The Belarusian nationals residing in the U.S. who are active in the Belarusian pro-democracy movement and work in support of Ukraine risk grave danger upon return to their home country. The anti-war activists face arrests, long sentences, tortures, and even the death penalty.
One year into Russia’s war in Ukraine, Lukashenka is increasing military cooperation with Russia, training newly mobilized Russian troops in Belarus, and increasing the production of military equipment for Russian military needs. Since January 2022, the Belarusian troops have been participating in ongoing joint military exercises with Russia to increase the Belarusian troops’ combat readiness and capacity. The regime officials are working on an increase in troop numbers and the formation of territorial defense forces. In apparent preparation for the possible participation of the Belarusian military in active combat in Ukraine, the authorities have been updating the mobilization lists and testing and optimizing mobilization procedures. A record number of Belarusian citizens receive summonses to enlistment centers to confirm their data. Bus terminals display signs and videos calling for enlistment.
If Lukashenka decides to launch a new offensive from the Belarusian territory, the anti-war activists could face forced compelled mobilization and coerced participation in active combat. This will create an impossible and life-threatening situation for Belarusians supporting Ukraine, opposing the Lukashenka regime and its association with Russia.
For the reasons above, we urge you to support the designation of Belarus for Temporary Protected Status.
Belarus Freedom Forum
Free Belarus Coalition
Association of Belarusians in America
Belarusian American Association, NY
Belarusian American Association, Washington DC
Belarusian American Association, Florida
Belarusians Educators and Researchers Abroad
Belarusians of New Jersey
Belarusians in Chicago
House of Belarus San Diego
Belarusians of Los Angeles
Belarusians in Washington DC
Belarus Freedom Philadephia
Belarusians of Boston and New England
Belarusian Draniki Seattle
Belarusian American Alliance “Pahonia”
Belarus Siniavokaya Denver
Belarusians of Orange County
Belarusians of Charlotte, NC
Belarusians of San Francisco Bay Area
Joint Baltic American National Committee