The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion In Belarus, a social media post can be a ticket to prison

President Alexander Lukashenko at a meeting in Minsk, Belarus, on Oct. 14. (Maxim Guchek/BelTA Pool Photo via AP)

In July, a husband and wife in Belarus, Anastasiya Krupenich-Kandratsiyeva, a teacher, and Siarhei Krupenich, a tech worker, exchanged messages with each other over the Telegram app, sharing reposts from some of the 100 or so channels the Belarus dictatorship has labeled “extremist.” They were arrested. At a police station, officers opened Ms. Krupenich-Kandratsiyeva’s phone, found the messages, and the couple have been jailed ever since. This is the worsening totalitarian hellscape of Belarus.

The leader of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, who stole the country’s 2020 presidential election, is descending to new depths of repression. In the past, he jailed journalists, shuttered their outfits, closed their websites and crushed most nongovernmental organizations. This month, a police unit announced that people will be charged with crimes for what they see or subscribe to online, especially the encrypted Telegram channels. The government published new rules for handling “extremist” information to take effect Oct. 15, but the document did not spell out specific penalties. What Mr. Lukashenko’s regime calls “extremist” is largely opposition information, news and reports about his brutality. “You can be arrested for just reading it, or making a comment somewhere,” says Tatsiana Khomich, the opposition’s coordinator for political prisoners, whose sister, Maria Kolesnikova, is a jailed opposition leader. Both sisters worked for a Minsk banker, Viktor Babariko, a presidential aspirant detained before the vote, who’s also still behind bars.

In recent years, Belarus had a thriving community of tech workers — coders, programmers and the like. On Sept. 28, the Belarus KGB raided the Minsk apartment of Andrey Zeltsar, 31, who worked for a U.S.-based tech company, Epam Systems. A shootout followed in which Mr. Zeltsar and a KGB officer, Dzmitry Fedasiuk, were killed. Details are not clear, but friends say Mr. Zeltsar was supportive of the pro-democracy demonstrations of the past year. In the days after the incident, social media in Belarus erupted with commentary about the case. Mr. Lukashenko’s regime began rounding up people for their postings.

In a joint statement, human rights groups said 136 were detained on charges of “insulting a representative of the authorities” or “incitement to social hatred.” Declaring that peaceful expression of opinion is not a threat to national security and should not be subject to punishment, the groups demanded release of 73 people they said were wrongly detained. Freedom of expression is a democratic norm that Mr. Lukashenko constantly tramples. He lost the election last year but claimed victory and forced into exile his chief challenger, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who was the winner. Thousands of people hit the streets in peaceful protest. The regime responded with a wave of detentions.

Punishment cells in Belarus are bulging with political prisoners. One witness said a cell intended for four held 16 people. Prisoners said they sleep on wood floors because they are not as frigid as the iron bunks. Viasna, a human rights monitoring group, lists 812 political prisoners in Belarus, but sources told us it may be several thousand: artists, journalists, bloggers, tech workers and human rights defenders. Their only “crime” is to want a normal, democratic Belarus.