For more than five months, the government of Belarus has persecuted working people protesting against the rigged presidential elections that took place in August 2020. Since those disputed elections, thousands of workers have participated in peaceful protests to express their demands for free and fair elections and democratic governance in Belarus. Through strikes and other legal protests, workers and independent trade unions have shown they are key to this grassroots, citizen-driven defense of democracy.
President Aleksandr Lukashenka has responded with violence. Workers have been beaten, tortured and threatened with arrest and job loss for their efforts to exercise their right to freedom of association. The government of Belarus has accelerated its aggressive actions to crush worker protests, directing the country’s judiciary to impose excessive sentences on union leaders and worker activists that likely put their lives in danger.
The Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions (BKDP) has been on the front lines of the struggle for democracy in their country. In response, members have received harsh prison sentences, including:
- Igor Povarov, three years, and Alexandr Bobrov and Yevgenii Govor, 2.5 years, for their attempt to organize a strike at the Belarusian Metallurgical Plant (BMZ) on Aug. 17, 2020. These sentences were leveled in the midst of an ongoing effort by workers at BMZ to form an independent trade union.
- Vladimir Berdnikovich, a union carpenter in Solihorsk, Belarus, was recently sentenced to four years in prison by the Minsk Central District Court, after a protest on Oct. 4, 2020. Witnesses testified that Berdnikovich was struck by a police water cannon and propelled by the blast of water to collide with a nearby officer. He was convicted of “violence” against the officer.
- Andrei Prilutsky, a worker at the Belaruskali potash mine in Solihorsk, was jailed for 15 days for defending a protester from being beaten by a mob of masked men, who were only later identified as police officers by the courts. After his previous sentence, Prilutsky was repeatedly detained and questioned by state authorities. On Dec. 7, he joined the strike committee at his worksite and was then interrogated again by police. Prilutsky fled to Russia where he asked for asylum. He was detained in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Dec. 29, on an extradition request by Belarus authorities and is currently under arrest awaiting prosecution.
- On Jan. 28, 2021, Leonid Sudalenko, a lawyer with the Belarusian Trade Union of Radio-Electronic Industry Workers (REP) and a member of the Viasna human rights group, was charged under the Belarusian Criminal Code for “organization and preparation of actions that grossly violate public order.” He is currently in a detention center in the city of Gomel.
- Daria Polyakova, a youth network coordinator at the Belarusian Radio and Electronic Industry Workers' Union in the city of Brest, was recently sentenced to two years of suspended imprisonment. Allegedly, she damaged the sleeve of a police officer’s jacket when she was pleading with him not to arrest another protester during an Oct. 25 demonstration in Brest.
Belarus has ratified International Labor Organization Conventions 87 on Freedom of Association and the Protection of the Right to Organize, and 98 on the Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively as well as other international standards. Although workers, activists and union leaders have been engaged in peaceful and lawful collective actions, they are regularly prosecuted for participation in strikes or protests under bogus charges claiming “violence or threat of violence towards officials of the internal affairs bodies” or “organization and preparation of actions that grossly violate public order.”
The AFL-CIO condemns the recent escalation of attacks on worker rights by the government of Belarus and calls for the immediate release of these union members and any others who have been targeted for exercising their fundamental workers’ rights. All charges must be dropped. The use of the courts to accuse and prosecute workers and union leaders unfairly threatens these brave individuals but is also an act of intimidation of other activists and destroys efforts to form independent trade unions. The AFL-CIO condemns all attacks on workers’ rights and the human rights of those who continue to advocate for a lawful and democratic Belarus. The AFL-CIO stands in solidarity with those struggling for democracy in their workplaces and improved living standards and the broader social struggle for justice that links the labor movement with the defence of democracy. The AFL-CIO will continue to advocate for action by governments and international organizations to condemn the government of Belarus and support the rights of the country’s citizens to protest lawfully against their government and to exercise their democratic workplace rights.