A pro-democracy protest in Minsk, Belarus, in September of 2020 (photo by Jana Shnipelson via Flickr)

Authorities in Belarus are moving to liquidate the country’s chapter of the PEN International network, according to a statement yesterday, July 22, by PEN America. The move follows government raids on offices of media outlets and cultural and civil rights organizations amid growing concerns over the future of democracy in the country.

According to the Associated Press (AP), PEN Belarus is one of 50 civil rights organizations facing closure as part of what the country’s authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko called a “mopping-up operation” of “bandits and foreign agents.”

Other cultural organizations that were liquidated by court order include the Goethe-Institut, the Polish School, the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), and Kryly Chalopa Theater. Several publishing houses were targeted too.

PEN Belarus says that it received a notice from the country’s Justice Ministry about its shutdown yesterday, the same day it issued its January to June 2021 report. The damning report lists human rights violations made against dozens of artists, writers, and cultural workers in the country. As of June 30, 39 of 526 political prisoners in Belarus are cultural workers, the report says, also describing patterns of arbitrary detention, criminal prosecution, and illegal conviction.

“When a government silences and stomps on its writers, it reveals a level of shame and decay that leaders are aiming to hide, but instead only expose,” said PEN America’s CEO Suzanne Nossel in a statement yesterday. “Belarus’ leaders may think they can suppress the truth by muzzling those who dare tell it, but the story of the will of the people and the scale of brutal repression will find its way to the world.”

PEN Belarus’s half-year update describes “extreme forms of pressure” on art spaces and culture organizations, exerted by the government since the beginning of 2021.

“The repressions began with interrogations of managers, searches, seizure of documents and property, and continued in the form of numerous reviews by the Financial Investigation Department, the Tax Inspectorate, units of the Ministry of Emergency Situations, etc,” the report reads. “These repressions ultimately have turned into an extreme form of administrative pressure — the liquidation of organizations.”

The European Writers’ Council (EWC) condemned these actions “in the strongest possible terms” in a statement earlier in July.

“We call on the European community not only to make comments of concern, but to act immediately for the people and the democracy movement in Belarus,” the EWC’s statement read. “We ask writers and all the cultural workers to stand up and unite to the strongest possible voice: that of democracy and human rights.”

Instead of a standard conclusion, PEN Belarus ended its report with a quote by Belarusian theater actress Elena Girenok, who was reportedly detained and beaten by police last year.

“It is difficult to serve art when ‘the country has no time for laws’, when all norms — legal and human — have been violated,” Girenok asserted.

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Hakim Bishara

Hakim Bishara is a Senior Editor at Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital...