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Marfa Rabkova

A group of 23 international and Belarusian nongovernmental organizations are launching a campaign to demand the release of seven members of Belarus’s Vyasna human rights center who were detained as part of a wider crackdown on civil society following last year’s presidential election.

The #FreeViasna campaign was initiated on September 17, which the human rights groups said marks the anniversary of Belarusian authorities launching their “shameless witch hunt” against Vyasna by arbitrarily detaining coordinator Marfa Rabkova.

In the following months, six other members of the human rights organization were put behind bars and charged with “unfounded” criminal offenses for carrying out their legitimate human rights work, they said in a joint statement.

The campaign also aims at highlighting the plight of hundreds of other people who have been “prosecuted and jailed solely for exercising their rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression” after the disputed August 2020 presidential election handed authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka a sixth term.

Mass protests broke out against alleged election fraud, which were met by a brutal crackdown from the Lukashenka government.

The opposition and the West have refused to recognize the results and called for a new, independently monitored vote.

“Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s government is wielding a war on civil society and ruthlessly suppressing all forms of dissent,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at New York-based Human Rights Watch.

“Key international actors should join forces to demand the immediate and unconditional release of Vyasna’s members and other jailed activists, and do their utmost to help and protect Belarusian civil society,” he said.

The human rights organizations are calling on people to join a global rally under the hashtag #FreeViasna.

Supporters are suggested to use their networks and social media to tell the world about the campaign using the #FreeViasna hashtag, take a picture with a campaign banner or a poster, write an open letter to an imprisoned human rights defender, and join rallies that are being organized across the world.

Sergei Shalygin, a Russian opposition activist and blogger, stands in front of his destroyed home in Rostov-on-Don. "The only reason I can see for the arson attack is my political activism," he says.

One evening in late August, as most residents of Rostov-on-Don were preparing for bed, a house on a sleepy, unpaved street on the outskirts of the southern Russian city erupted in flames.

The house belonged to Sergei Shalygin, a local opposition activist and blogger who had spent four years building and expanding the 100-square-meter property with his son. For Shalygin, the incident -- less than three weeks before Russia was due to hold nationwide legislative elections -- had clear motives.

This is nothing new. Something like this happens during every national vote."
-- Political analyst Aleksandr Kynev

"Local authorities in August ordered [a clampdown on] bloggers with a sizable following," he told RFE/RL's Russian Service. "The only reason I can see for the arson attack is my political activism."

The elections to Russia's lower house of parliament and legislative bodies throughout the country come amid a concerted, months-long crackdown on dissent that markedly accelerated after the return to Russia and subsequent jailing of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, who blamed his August 2020 poisoning on the Kremlin and urged his supporters to take to the streets.

But the closer Russia has gotten to the important vote, the greater the pressure has grown on the opposition, according to activists affected by arson attacks.

Shalygin is known locally as an activist who cooperates with various political forces, including the liberal Yabloko party and the now-outlawed political network founded by Navalny. He said that the arson attack is still being probed; investigators are expected to announce a conclusion in October.

But Shalygin is far from alone. RFE/RL's Russian Service discovered evidence of a spate of arson attacks against opposition activists, and found that not a single one had led to a criminal conviction.

Daniil Kulikov, the editor in chief of the independent Dal-TV
Daniil Kulikov, the editor in chief of the independent Dal-TV

Overnight on July 27, a car parked in the courtyard of a home in the Far Eastern town of Dalnegorsk was set alight. The car belonged to Daniil Kulikov, the editor in chief of the local independent TV channel Dal-TV. But Kulikov had also registered to work as an election monitor in the upcoming vote and was involved in the political campaign of the party New People.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service, Kulikov cited unconfirmed video camera footage that allegedly shows a hoodie-clad figure who stops beside his car in the darkness and throws something at it before lighting a match to ignite the vehicle. Kulikov was out of town at the time, but his wife and young child were home.

On his TV channel, Kulikov had regularly covered cases of local corruption and incompetence, and he admitted that he had likely earned his fair share of enemies in Dalnegorsk. The attack, however, did not intimidate him.

"Obviously, my mom is worried for me, and so is my wife, but she knows that I'll keep pushing till the end, even though I understand that the pressure can grow, especially ahead of the elections," he said.

It's not just in Russia's hardscrabble provinces that such attacks are taking place. The geographic scale of the incidents indicates a concerted campaign of intimidation against independent activists.

Alyona Popova, who advocates for victims of domestic violence, suspects her car was set ablaze either by political opponents or activists aligned with the ultra-right Male State movement.
Alyona Popova, who advocates for victims of domestic violence, suspects her car was set ablaze either by political opponents or activists aligned with the ultra-right Male State movement.

On August 28, the day before Shalygin's home was engulfed in flames, a car belonging to feminist campaigner Alyona Popova was set alight in Moscow. Popova is running for a seat in Russia's State Duma, its lower house of parliament, and frequently criticizes the authorities.

"I got the news from an employee of a local warehouse. When I arrived, the security guard who witnessed the event had gone, and the head of security told me nothing," she said in an interview. "Who put out the flames, I also don't know. No one told me anything."

Popova suspects that the attack was either the work of her political opponents or of activists aligned with Male State, a chauvinistic, ultra-right movement that has sent her multiple death threats because of her advocacy on behalf of victims of domestic violence and her work to bring attention to the issue.

Incidents of the sort reported by activists involved in this year's election campaigns are not isolated to this campaign season -- they bear similarity to arson attacks that have accompanied every political cycle in Russia's modern history, analysts say.

"This is nothing new. Something like this happens during every national vote, and it was actually worse during [elections in] 2007 and 2011," said Moscow-based political analyst Aleksandr Kynev.

Vladimir Gelman, a political scientist at the European University in St. Petersburg, said such incidents are just one in an arsenal of measures the authorities may choose to use to scare their opponents. The organizers and perpetrators are rarely, if ever, found.

"The authorities have not yet exhausted their resources -- they will continue to ramp up the pressure," he said. "This is a selective tactic, where they choose [their targets] and punish them one by one. And it doubles up as a signal to other potential activists."

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.


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