Ihar Losik, a popular Belarusian blogger, was facing a possible three-year prison term after his June arrest ahead of the disputed presidential election that has triggered a wave of protests -- and a harsh crackdown by the authorities under Alyaksandr Lukashenka, the authoritarian leader in power since 1994.
On December 15, Losik, who is a consultant for RFE/RL on new media technologies, was slapped with fresh charges that could result in an eight-year prison term if he is convicted. In protest, Losik, who has been recognized as a political prisoner by rights activists, launched a hunger strike.
His wife, Darya Losik, told Current Time on January 13 her husband's health was deteriorating and that medical attention was minimal.
"Ihar's lawyer saw him yesterday. Ihar says he feels fine, but the lawyer said he looked pale and very ill. They monitor his blood pressure and he is weighed once in a while, and that's all they do with him to check his health," Darya Losik told Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.
Losik, 28, was arrested in the run-up to the August 9 presidential election that Lukashenka claimed he won by a landslide amid allegations of widespread fraud. Since then, Belarus has witnessed nearly daily demonstrations whose size and scope are unparalleled in the country's post-Soviet history.
In the lead-up to and aftermath of the vote, authorities under Lukashenka launched a crackdown, detaining nearly 30,000 people, while jailing dozens of journalists, political opposition figures, potential presidential candidates, civic activists, and human rights defenders, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on January 13, when it issued its World Report 2021.
"In the past year, the Belarusian government shattered its own horrendous record for brutality and repression," said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at HRW. "It has spared no effort to shut down dissent in nearly every layer of society."
Ramping Up Pressure
Losik was arrested on June 25 and accused by the authorities of using his popular Telegram channel to "prepare to disrupt public order" ahead of the August 9 vote.
He was sent to the Akrestsina detention center in Minsk, which Amnesty International has described as "synonymous with torture." Former detainees have spoken of brutal beatings by guards at Akrestsina and other jails in Belarus.
A day after his arrest, Amnesty International accused the Belarusian authorities of launching a "full-scale purge of dissenting voices."
The Belarusian rights monitor Vyasna has labeled Losik and other bloggers and other activists rounded up by the authorities political prisoners.
On December 15, Losik faced a fresh, graver charge of helping to prepare with mass disorder, or organize riots. He had been first charged with helping prepare for violations of public order, which carries a maximum punishment of three years in prison. If found guilty of the latest charge, Losik could be imprisoned for up to eight years.
Shortly after the charge was announced, Losik announced his hunger strike.
Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the opposition leader supporters claim actually won the August election, has called on Belarusians to support those opponents of the Lukashenka regime detained in jail, singling out Losik.
"Many Belarusians celebrated the New Year with their relatives and friends. But 568 people spent it behind bars: 112 were detained under Article 23.34, 287 are suspects in criminal cases and 169 are political prisoners," Tsikhanouskaya said on her website on January 4.
Tsikhanouskaya, who left Belarus for neighboring Lithuania shortly after the vote amid threats to her and her family, said Losik "was deprived of letters and the press. He was kept in a semi-basement room where it was impossible to take even a couple of steps."
Losik was also denied the chance to celebrate his daughter's second birthday on January 4, she said. "It is impossible to return to Ihar the six months of his life that he spent in prison, just as it is impossible to return him the opportunity to hug his daughter. But it is within our power to facilitate his return home and support him," said Tsikhanouskaya, who called on Belarusians to send Losik and other Belarusians in jail letters of support.
Darya Losik told Current Time on January 13 that a conversation she had with Tsikhanouskaya had given her strength, "because I am very worried and every day there is just so much stress."
Cracking Down On Protesters
Despite intimidation by the authorities, Belarusians continue to take to the streets to call for fresh elections and justice for abuses.
By mid-November, HRW said in its annual report, Belarusian police had detained more than 25,000 people, including more than 1,000 in an early November weekend alone.
November also witnessed the death of Raman Bandarenka, who died from injuries sustained in a vicious beating in Minsk by a group of masked assailants whom Vyasna alleged to have been affiliated with the authorities.
Crisis In Belarus
Read our ongoing coverage as Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka ramps up pressure on NGOs and independent media as part of a brutal crackdown against protesters and the opposition following an August 2020 election widely considered fraudulent.
The authorities have opened several preliminary inquiries into abuses against protesters but not one criminal case, said Human Rights Watch, which noted "hundreds of politically motivated criminal cases" have been opened "against political opposition figures, protesters, and their supporters, civic activists, and human rights defenders."
According to Vyasna, at least 121 Belarusians are behind bars awaiting trial. In many cases police detained, beat, fined, or deported journalists who covered the protests and stripped them of accreditation. In early August, the authorities temporarily blocked dozens of websites and severely restricted Internet access for days.
The Belarusian Association of Journalists has documented 336 detentions and 60 incidents of violence against journalists in the months since the presidential vote.
'I Will Not Stop'
Despite the health concerns, Losik remains defiant, vowing to continue his hunger strike until charges against him are dropped.
"I ask all of you -- there is no need to try to convince me to end the hunger strike or give in. How can I surrender when they have detained me illegally for six months?" Losik said in a letter posted to his Telegram channel on January 12.
"I've already forgotten my daughter's voice. I understand that my family and other concerned people are very worried about my health. But I cannot and will not stop. I will manage, but I still have strength. I believe in the power of your solidarity."