Accessibility links

In Belarus, Your T-Shirt Can Land You In Jail

  • Halina Abakunchyk
  • Claire Bigg

Leanid Smouzh was arrested after wearing this T-shirt.

Leanid Smouzh was arrested after wearing this T-shirt.

MINSK -- In Belarus, government critics have been jailed for merely clapping their hands or posting photos of teddy bears on the Internet.

Now, a new offense has been added to the long list of crimes punishable by jail: wearing T-shirts with slogans critical of iron-fisted President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

A court in Minsk on November 11 sentenced a middle-aged man to five days in jail for wearing a T-shirt that called for Lukashenka's resignation.

Leanid Smouzh was arrested wearing the offending T-shirt, which called for a "Belarus Without Lukashenka," during a sanctioned memorial march outside the capital on November 10 to honor the victims of Soviet-era repression.

Smouzh told RFE/RL at the rally that he opposed Lukashenka's policies, including a proposed "tax on idleness" under which unemployed citizens may soon have to pay penalties to the state.

"I protest against the decrees and the directives of our leader, which come out of his mouth as often as bees from a beehive," Smouzh said. "I protest particularly against the bill on idleness. This year my health is not very good, I passed the medical commission with difficulty. Next year, I will become either a criminal or a slave because I will formally become idle."

Witnesses in court testified that Smouzh neither shouted slogans nor resisted police.

No other participants at the event, organized by an opposition party, were detained.

Smouzh's jailing comes just a week after another man, Yury Rubtsou, was sentenced to three days in prison for wearing a T-shirt that read, "Lukashenka, Go Away!"

Clapping Protests

Rubtsou, a pensioner, was also detained while taking part in a march outside Minsk honoring the memory of people killed during Soviet purges in the 1930s.

Demonstrators say police officers twisted his arms before pushing him into a van.

At his trial, Rubtsou argued that he had a right to ask for Lukashenka's resignation since the president himself pledged in a televised statement that he would leave his post if the Belarusian people requested it.

Lukashenka, a former collective-farm director, is accused of overseeing rampant human rights violations since coming to power almost two decades ago.

The T-shirt incidents underscore his government's mounting intolerance to any form of criticism. And the crackdown, critics say, has become so indiscriminate as to verge on the absurd.

In 2011, dozens of people were jailed for up to 15 days after participating in so-called clapping protests, during which participants simply clapped in unison to protest Lukashenka's policies. The clapping tactic was an effort to bypass tough laws prohibiting public demonstrations.

Police violently dispersed the rallies, arresting almost 2,000 people, including a one-armed man who was fined the equivalent of $200 for clapping.

The unemployed man, Konstantin Kaplin, said the fine represented more than twice his monthly pension.

Last year, a journalism student, Anton Suryapin, was held for one month after posting photographs online of stuffed bears bearing pro-democracy messages.

Authorities accused Suryapin and another man, Syarhei Basharimau, of aiding a Swedish advertising agency which had earlier dropped some 1,000 teddy bears bearing free-speech messages into Belarus by a plane.

The charges against both men -- who had faced up to seven years in prison -- were eventually dropped in June 2013.

Halina Abakunchyk of RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported from Minsk. Claire Bigg reported and wrote from Prague
  • 16x9 Image

    Claire Bigg

    Claire Bigg covers Russia, Ukraine, and the post-Soviet world, with a focus on human rights, civil society, and social issues. Send story tips to​