The Belarusian government is moving Dozens close by organizations that were the backbone of the country’s once thriving civil society.
These groups work on topics such as disability rights, the environment, freedom of the media and pensioners’ rights. This includes internationally recognized organizations like the Belarusian Association of Journalists founded by Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich and the Belarusian Press Club.
Today the Minsk city government closed Lawtrend and Human Constant, prominent groups documenting victims of rights violations and providing legal services including pro bono legal defense and legal analysis. The authorities used the Russian term “liquidated”, which is common for such closure procedures, but the Stalinist connotations resonate.
The forced closings came a week after extensive police raids on more than 40 groups, the seizure of equipment and the arrest of many of the country’s leading human rights activists who are now in custody pending litigation.
These recent moves are the latest in a year of tyranny in Belarus as the government continues to punish people who took to the streets after the August 9th presidential election to protest an election they believed was stolen and demand change. More than 500 people are in jail on charges related to these protests. The authorities have arrested journalists, raided and closed media outlets, and now they are expelling groups with a wide range of rights. They have also silenced attorneys who in these cases cannot even discuss charges against their clients without being charged themselves.
We shouldn’t be surprised that a government that will fake a bomb threat to force a plane to land to arrest an activist would not hesitate to take steps to swing a metaphorical ax through civil society.
For decades, human rights and other civil society groups were able to survive despite Lukashenka’s authoritarian autocracy. They endured repeated harassment, marginalization and arrest of employees. But this week’s purge signals the end of civil society in Belarus as we knew it. It will certainly live on, but probably underground and in exile.
Let’s stop calling this crackdown. At a government meeting on July 22nd, President Alexander Lukashenka unequivocally called the recent actions “a purge. ”These actions are a shame and major international actors should join forces to stand up for Belarusian civil society and give a firm response.