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Human rights community of Belarus joint statement on the death in custody of the artist Ales Pushkin

2023 2023-07-12T19:24:25+0300 2023-07-15T12:51:36+0300 en The Human Rights Center “Viasna” The Human Rights Center “Viasna”
The Human Rights Center “Viasna”
Ales Pushkin in court on March 10, 2022

Ales Pushkin in court on March 10, 2022

On July 11, 2023, it became known that the imprisoned Belarusian artist, Ales Pushkin, died in hospital intensive care. As a result of untimely medical care, he reportedly developed peritonitis, was in a septic state, and had multiple organ damage.

Ales Pushkin was convicted under Article 370 of the Criminal Code, “desecrating state symbols,” and Article 130 of the Criminal Code, “inciting hatred,” and was sentenced to five years imprisonment in a medium-security penal colony. In August 2022, the administration of the penal facility placed the imprisoned artist in a cell-type room for five months. According to the information available to human rights defenders, Judge Aliaksandr Kirylovich, of Ivacevičy District Court decided on November 11, 2022, to increase Pushkin’s security regime to imprisonment in a high-security prison for 18 months. Soon after, the political prisoner was transferred to Hrodna Prison No. 1.

The criminal case stemmed, in particular, from the works of the artist that were displayed at an exhibition held on March 19, 2021, in the independent cultural space Center of Urban Life. In the portraits of anti-Soviet partisans, the prosecutor saw a “rehabilitation of Nazism.”

Ales Pushkin, a renowned Belarusian artist and winner of the 2019 Frantsishak Aliakhnovich Award for his Prison Album, advocated for protecting the Belarusian language and freedom of expression in Belarus for over 30 years. 

Ales Pushkin has been repeatedly subjected to short-term imprisonment for his artistic activities. On several occasions, law enforcement officers assaulted him during detentions.

Pushkin was first detained in 1988 for his participation in a rally on Dziady rally. Since then, the artist has been repeatedly detained for his actions and performances, including a performance supporting the Belarusian language.

On March 25, 1989, Ales Pushkin organized his first performance in defense of the Belarusian language alongside fellow students from a Theater and Art Institute. He was then sentenced to two years of suspended imprisonment.

In 1999, Ales Pushkin was given a two-year suspended sentence for the performance “Gratitude to the President.” On July 21, 1999, when Aliaksandr Lukashenka’s presidency term ended, the artist rolled a cart with manure, painted in red, up to the presidential residence. The cart also contained Belarusian rubles, a portrait of Lukashenka, handcuffs, and a copy of the Constitution with amendments from 1996.

On December 10, 2000, on International Human Rights Day, Ales Pushkin and the human rights center Viasna organized an exhibition of uncensored art called “Not Approved by Censorship.”

In 2012, while serving a 10-day imprisonment in Smarhoń, Ales Pushkin created a series of drawings, “Artist Behind Bars.”

At present, the official cause of death and other circumstances of this tragedy are unknown. However, preliminary information suggests that Ales Pushkin’s death could have been caused by a failure to provide timely and appropriate medical assistance.

In connection with another death of a political prisoner in Belarus, we make the following statement:

Deprivation of liberty as a punishment for the lawful exercise of rights, guaranteed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, along with the right to freedom of thought and free expression (Article 19), is unlawful.

Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights establishes that the right to life is an inherent right of every human being. In its General Comment No. 36 (Article 6: the right to life), the Human Rights Committee emphasized the crucial importance of the right to life for individuals and society. It is most precious as a right that inheres in every person for its own sake. It also constitutes a fundamental right, the effective protection of which is the prerequisite for the enjoyment of all other human rights and the content of which can be informed by other human rights. The committee also indicated that the right to life is a right that should not be interpreted narrowly. It concerns the entitlement of individuals to be free from acts and omissions that are intended or may be expected to cause their unnatural or premature death, as well as to enjoy a life with dignity. Article 6 of the Covenant guarantees this right to all people without exception, including those suspected or convicted of even the most serious crimes.

We note that this is not the first death incident in places of deprivation of liberty. Thousands of prisoners in Belarusian jails daily suffer from poor conditions, including violating their constitutional healthcare rights. Furthermore, prisoners die every year in places of deprivation of liberty due to the lack of proper medical assistance. Human rights defenders regularly report a lack of adequate medical examinations, qualified medical personnel, and the denial of medical assistance. The detention of some political prisoners in incommunicado conditions (without contact with relatives and lawyers) raises doubts about their satisfactory health status. It constitutes an unacceptable practice that violates human rights.

It is crucial to emphasize that serving a sentence in isolation should not deprive prisoners of access to specialized and high-tech medical assistance. Moreover, we note reports of the Department of Corrections’ directive issued on April 29, 2023, restricting (and effectively prohibiting) the transfer of medical drugs to detainees, except for vitamins and foreign-made insulin.

In this regard, we remind that, as stated by the Human Rights Committee in General Comment No. 36, States parties also have a heightened duty of care to take any necessary measures to protect the lives of individuals deprived of their liberty by the State, since by arresting, detaining, imprisoning or otherwise depriving individuals of their liberty, States parties assume the responsibility to care for their lives and bodily integrity, and they may not rely on lack of financial resources or other logistical problems to reduce this responsibility.

We assert that the Republic of Belarus is not fulfilling its obligations to ensure that the right to life is adequately protected by law and enforced in practice, leading to such tragedies.

Some Belarusian prisoners, including political prisoners, are more vulnerable due to their age and medical conditions. Belarusian prisons hold many people from vulnerable social groups, for whom imprisonment is an even greater challenge than for others. By the end of 2022, there were no fewer than 25 retired persons among political prisoners and no fewer than 74 individuals with disabilities and severe illnesses. The oldest political prisoner, 75-year-old Natallia Taran, was sentenced to 3.5 years in a penal colony. She has not yet been released.

We want to highlight that the authorities use the denial of medical assistance as a form of pressure on political prisoners, which is unacceptable and can be considered torture or other forms of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment and punishment.

Based on the above, once again stressing the importance of ensuring the human right to life and health, we, representatives of the Belarusian human rights community, call on the General Prosecutor’s Office of the Republic of Belarus and the Investigative Committee of the Republic of Belarus to initiate criminal proceedings on the death of Ales Pushkin, conduct an objective and comprehensive investigation to determine the causes of this tragedy, and inform the public about the results.

We also request to review other instances of violations of conditions of detention and the right to medical care in places of detention, including confirming the availability of qualified medical personnel and appropriate equipment.

We also demand that employees and the management of penitentiary institutions and other state institutions carrying out compulsory isolation (temporary detention centers, pre-trial detention centers, etc.) comply with the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus and its international obligations to ensure the protection of the lives and health of persons deprived of liberty and in isolation.

These demands do not negate the statement of the Belarusian human rights community regarding the inadmissibility of persecuting citizens for exercising their civil and political rights, the immediate release, and the review of criminal cases of all political prisoners in Belarus.

The Belarusian human rights community would like to express its deepest condolences to the family, friends, and the Belarusian creative community on the death of Ales Pushkin.

PEN Belarus

Belarusian Helsinki Committee


Barys Zvozskau Belarusian Human Rights House

Human Rights Center Viasna

Legal initiative

Human Constanta

Public institution Doctors for truth and justice 

Medical Solidarity Fund of Belarus

White Scrubs medical community

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