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Dozens of Nobel Prize winners demand release of Belarus political prisoners

More than two dozen Nobel prize winners have slammed the “human catastrophe” of repression in Belarus in an open letter demanding the immediate release of political prisoners in the authoritarian country.

Oscar Arias Sanchez, the former president of Cost Rica; Jose Ramos-Horta president of East Timor; Dmitry Muratov, the journalist and former editor-in-chief of the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta and Oleksandra Matviichuk, the Ukrainian human rights lawyers are among the signatories.

The letter, launched by activist Dmitry Bolkunets and posted on his website, says that over the past four years, more than 50,000 people have been subjected to political repression in Belarus while hundreds of thousands of citizens have been forced to leave the country. Thousands have also been tortured.

Belarus is ruled by Aleksandr Lukashenko,  its authoritarian president who has been labelled Europe’s last dictator. He is a close ally of Russian president Vladimir Putin and allowed his country to be used as a staging post for the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

Russia's president Vladimir Putin and Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Russia's president Vladimir Putin and Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

He has ruled Belarus for nearly 30 years and launched a brutal crackdown on opposition figures after riots broke out when he claimed another landslide victory in the 2020 presidential election, which was marred by accusations of vote rigging.

“Entire families, mothers with multiple children, minors, the gravely ill, the elderly, and the disabled are currently held captive in horrible conditions,” says the letter, which is addressed to the governments of all EU countries but urges Poland in particular, as the biggest Western neighbour of Belarus, to exert leverage by suspending rail freight shipments to the EU from Belarus, including transit from Russia and China.

“In recent decades, Europe has not seen a humanitarian catastrophe related to political repression on such a per capita scale as in Belarus,” the letter says.

“We call on the governments of all EU countries, but addressing firstly the government of Poland, to take immediate measures to stop the brutal repression in Belarus and pressure for the release of all political prisoners.”

Journalists, professors, educators, doctors, musicians, workers, and students, public figures and human rights defenders, including the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Ales Bialiatski are among those locked up in the eastern European country, which also shares a border with Russia, Ukraine and Nato allies Lithuania and Latvia.

Lukashenko is known as Europe’s last dictator (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)
Lukashenko is known as Europe’s last dictator (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

It also carries the names of literature winners Svetlana Alexievich, JM Coetzee and Herta Mueller, and 19 other laureates in physics, chemistry, medicine and economics.

The resolution “encourages” governments of all countries around the world to introduce any restrictive measures against Lukashenko’s regime for “systematic violations of labour and trade union rights.”

“We appeal to politicians, opinion leaders and all people of goodwill to support our civil campaign for the release of political prisoners in Belarus. The lives of thousands of innocent people depend on your position and, more importantly, your action,” it adds.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the exiled Belarusian opposition leader, said earlier this month she had not heard from her jailed husband Syarhey Tsikhanouski in a year. She said he was being held incommunicado, describing that as a form of torture.

Ms Tsikhanouskaya, a former English teacher, was jailed in 2020 after announcing plans to run against Lukashenko in that year’s election, in which he claimed 80 per cent of the vote. She fled to Lithuania after the result and has been exiled there since.

Human Rights Watch says that hundreds of rights activists, journalists, lawyers, opposition politicians and others are imprisoned in Belarus on politically motivated charges and face ill-treatment in detention.