New details of the persecution of artist Ales Pushkin: charges over iconic performance restaging and solitary confinement in pre-trial detention
In a solemn event in July, Ales Pushkin, a 57-year-old political prisoner and renowned artist, passed away in an intensive care unit, having been transferred there from the Hrodna prison. The subsequent discovery of a perforated ulcer—an ailment left untreated in prison—raised questions about his treatment during incarceration. Pushkin had arrived at the hospital unconscious, and, despite surgical attempts to save him, he suffered a heart stoppage on the operating table.
Ales Pushkin's art and performances were the catalysts for his criminal charges. The controversial pieces displayed at his Hrodna exhibition, combined with a performance in Kyiv shortly before his arrest, were cited in the case against him. Human rights defenders of Viasna continue to collect information about Pushkin's persecution, imprisonment, and death.
At the Kyiv art exhibition on March 25, 2021, Ales Pushkin staged his famous "Manure for the President" performance with a slight twist. He modified a portrait of Aliaksandr Lukashenka pouring red paint symbolizing blood over the words "For 5-year productive work." This bold act led to criminal charges under Article 370 of the Criminal Code, which covers "desecration of state symbols."
In a poignant moment during the exhibition's opening, shortly before his arrest, Pushkin expressed both pride and sorrow. He was proud to unveil Belarusian contemporary art in Kyiv. Still, he was also saddened that his performance piece remained relevant after 22 years, symbolizing the ongoing struggle against a regime he deemed oppressive.
Back in 1999, in his original performance, Pushkin had audaciously pushed a wheelbarrow filled with manure up to the presidential administration in Minsk. He scattered the manure, devalued rubles, and a constitution over a portrait of Lukashenka, finally piercing everything with a pitchfork. This act led to a two-year suspended sentence.
In the case leading to his recent conviction, an exhibition in Hrodna was also cited, where Pushkin showcased portraits of Belarusian anti-Soviet resistance figures. The authorities construed these portrayals as "Nazi rehabilitation," a charge that led to prosecution under Article 130 of the Criminal Code. Despite being aware of the criminal case against him, Pushkin made the decision to return to Belarus.
His trial started on March 10, 2022, and was promptly closed to the public. After 20 days, Judge Alena Shylko sentenced Pushkin to five years in a maximum-security penal colony. At his trial, Pushkin made his final performance, refusing to stand and lying on a bench in a white jumpsuit—the same one he was arrested in nearly a year prior. Pushkin was even carried into the courthouse horizontally and handcuffed, maintaining his horizontal position throughout the proceedings. It is known that security officers filed daily reports against him that were later included in the political prisoner's case. In a further act of protest against his own imprisonment and the 5,000 politically motivated criminal cases in Belarus, he cut his abdomen in the shape of a cross.
While being in pre-trial detention, Ales Pushkin was placed in solitary confinement, even before his protest in court. This was due to what detention center supervisor Andrei Tsedryk deemed "inappropriate behavior" during a court session.
Viasna has learned that Pushkin had prepared a 23-page statement for his last word. However, due to the closed nature of the trial, his words were not heard by the public, further silencing his voice and message. Despite his death, the impact of his actions and his commitment to his cause continue to resonate with those fighting for human rights and freedom of expression in Belarus and beyond.
While serving his sentence, Pushkin was placed in solitary confinement on the orders of prison supervisor Andrey Tsedrik, who cited "inappropriate behavior" during a court session as justification.