January 5, 2023 will go down in the recent history of Belarus as one of the dramatic episodes of trade unions. On this day, the Minsk City Court handed down harsh sentences to the leaders of the REP trade union - Hennadz Fiadynich, Vasil Berasneu and Vatslau Areshka. During a closed trial, judge Alena Papkova sentenced the activists to 9 and 8 years of imprisonment. Over the past two years, three dozen trade union activists were sentenced to prison terms in Belarus, totaling up to 64 years of imprisonment.
This is not the only case of persecution for trade union activities in Belarus. Over the past two years, hundreds of leaders, activists and rank and file members of democratic trade unions, part of BKDP, have passed through pretrial detention centers. And over the past year, dozens of leaders have been arrested on criminal charges and sentenced for years. In total, three dozen trade unionists were sentenced to 64 years in prison and 12.5 years of restricted freedom. It should be added that this is without taking into account the activists who are going through the “Rabochy Rukh” case; they are facing huge terms of up to 15 years. With such actions, the regime is taking revenge on the activists of the trade union movement for their participation in the 2020 popular protests.
Administrative arrest is also used as a form of revenge. Even such short-term imprisonment is used as a form of physical and psychological torture today. So, according to fabricated articles, the leader of the trade union organization at JSC “Naftan”Volha Brytsikava was kept behind bars for 75 days. Each time they extended the term of arrest, inventing offenses for her.
Volha is not the only woman being persecuted for her trade union activities. The deputy head of the REP trade union Zinaida Mikhniuk received a long prison term - 2.5 years in prison. Yanina Malash, deputy chairperson of the Free Trade Union of Metalworkers (SPM), received 1.5 years in prison, as did the accountant of the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions (BKDP), Iryna But-Husaim. The last two activists have young children who will have to remain without their mothers for a long time.
The children of the vice-chairperson of the Belarusian Independent Trade Union, Aliaksandr Mishuk, and the leader of the primary organization of the BNP at JSC “Hrodna Azot”, Andrei Khanevich, were left fatherless.
Aliaksandr will spend 2.5 years in prison, and Andrey will spend 5 years under strict regime. The deputy chairperson of the BKDP, Siarhei Antusevich, was separated from his family for 2 years for a photo, which proved his participation in the protest.
The so-called judges did not take into account either the age or the state of health of the defendants. Some of the leaders of the trade union are already old people. Aliaksandr Yarashuk, the leader of the BKDP, who turned 71 years old, was sentenced to 4 years in prison. Vasil Berasneu, Hennadz Fiadynich and Vatslau Areshka were sentenced to long terms, having serious health problems, which worsened in prison conditions.
To date, more than forty trade union activists have been convicted on criminal charges. Some, like a group of students - members of the Free Trade Union of Belarus (SPB), have already served their sentences and been released. Others, who were sentenced at the end of 2022, are preparing appeals in their cases and are not going to put up with the sentences even while behind bars.
Such brutality on the part of the authorities can only be explained by their fear and desire to intimidate the workers. Last year, the General Prosecutor’s Office of Belarus initiated the liquidation of all democratic trade unions in the country.
In a few days, the Supreme Court banned the activities of four independent trade unions and the trade union center, which united thousands of workers for the past 30 years - BKDP. In fact, trade union activity is prohibited in Belarus, and the “protection” of workers’ rights is under control of the pro-government Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus.
Undoubtedly, similarly to all totalitarian regimes, Lukashenka’s penal system claims that all sentences are based on criminal responsibility. Most of the accusations come down to the participation of activists in mass protests. The accusation of calling for sanctions seems absurd. It is absurd because the leadership of the BKDP and the leaders of some independent trade unions have publicly opposed the sanctions in recent years. Regime accusers also accused activists of spreading extremist materials. One of the trade unions, in general, was recognized as an extremist organization by the KGB, as well as all independent media, dozens of public organizations and initiatives in the country.
Trade unionists arrested in the last two years, were recognized by human rights organizations as political prisoners. The International Labour Organization (ILO), for the systematic persecution of activists and violations of labour rights, has begun the process of forcing the leadership of the Republic of Belarus through article 33 of its Constitution to fulfill the international obligations assumed by the country. Several dozen European deputies have become “godparents” of imprisoned trade unionists, and international trade union associations are holding campaigns for their release.
All this can help dozens of Belarusian trade union activists if all these actions are coordinated and massive. Today, the international trade union movement is challenged by Lukashenka’s regime, which spits on the international law and the international norms. Therefore, this challenge must be accepted by demonstrating the cohesion and strength of the labour democratic movement.