The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion In Belarus, a social media post brings 6.5 years in prison

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in St. Petersburg on June 25. (Maxim Blinov, Sputnik, Kremlin)

Danuta Perednya was an honors student at Mogilev State University in Belarus when Russia began a military onslaught against Ukraine. On Feb. 27, just days after the invasion, she reposted a text in an online chatroom that harshly criticized Presidents Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus and Vladimir Putin of Russia for unleashing the war. She called for protests and spoke out against Belarusian troops entering the conflict directly.

The next day, Ms. Perednya got off a bus in Mogilev from her hometown of Kirovsk and was arrested. She was expelled from the university, and accused of actions aimed at causing harm to the national interests of the Republic of Belarus and of insulting Mr. Lukashenko. On June 10, she was labeled a person involved with terrorist activities by the Belarusian security services. On July 1, Ms. Perednya was sentenced to 6½ years in a penal colony — for simply expressing her views.

In a photograph widely circulated online, Ms. Perednya, 20, is smiling broadly. This is not the face of a terrorist or a criminal. Rather, it is the face of a dictatorship using terror and coercion against its own people to smother free speech and association. It is the face of a tyrant, Mr. Lukashenko, who was defeated in the 2020 presidential election but stole it from the true victor, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, after she was greeted by huge crowds with hopes for change. Mr. Lukashenko declared himself the winner, incarcerated hundreds of protesters and forced Ms. Tikhanovskaya into exile. How is it possible to insult such crude despotism?

Ms. Perednya is not alone. The prisons of Belarus are full of those detained on sham accusations. Viasna, a Belarusian human rights center, reports there are 1,236 political prisoners in the country. Among the prisoners are Ms. Tikhanovskaya’s husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky, who dared declare a candidacy against Mr. Lukashenko; Viktor Babaryko, a businessman who ran in the election; and Maria Kolesnikova, who campaigned shoulder to shoulder with Ms. Tikhanovskaya. The prisons hold bloggers, business executives, artists, performers and journalists, many arrested in the aftermath of the 2020 vote, a testament to Mr. Lukashenko’s thuggery.

Mr. Lukashenko has increasingly sought protection from Russia and turned Belarus into a Russian air base. While Belarusian troops have not entered combat in Ukraine, Belarusian runways are aiding Russian forces in staging bombing and missile raids on civilian targets in Ukraine. On June 26, these raids hit an apartment complex in Kyiv and targets across northern and western Ukraine. On July 5, Britain adopted new trade, financial and transport sanctions against Belarus, which “has actively facilitated Putin’s invasion, letting Russia use its territory to pincer Ukraine — launching troops and missiles from their border and flying Russian jets through their airspace.” The United States and the European Union should follow suit with new sanctions. Mr. Lukashenko menaces his own people and serves as an accomplice to Mr. Putin’s terrible war on Ukraine.

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