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Belarus must release imprisoned union leaders and activists

19 January, 2023A court in Belarus has sentenced leaders of independent trade unions to unduly harsh prison terms up to nine years on politically motivated charges.To date, courts in Belarus have sentenced at least 16 leaders and activists of independent unions to lengthy prison terms or restriction of freedom.

On 5 January, Minsk City Court sentenced the former chairperson of the Belarusian Radio and Electronics Workers’ Union (REP) Hennadz Fiadynich, 65, and REP acting chairperson Vasil Berasnieu, 72, to nine years of imprisonment, and REP activist Vatslau Areshka, 68, to eight years of imprisonment in a colony with a reinforced regime.

The three were detained on 19 April 2022 and accused of “calls for restrictive measures, aimed at causing harm to the national security of the Republic of Belarus”, “incitement of social hatred”, and “establishment of an extremist formation or participation in it”, all charges based on the criminal code.

In April 2022, the Committee for State Security of Belarus (KGB) listed REP as an extremist organization and banned its activities.

On 26 December 2022, another three trade union leaders were convicted by Minsk City Court, accused of “actions that grossly violate public order”. Aliaksandr Yarashuk, chairperson of the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions (BKDP), was also accused of “calling for restrictive measures and other actions aimed at harming the national security of the Republic of Belarus”, and, as a result, he was sentenced to four years in prison. BKDP vice-chairperson Siarhei Antusevich was sentenced to two years in prison, and BKDP media team officer and book-keeper Iryna But-Husaim was sentenced to 1.5 years in prison with a general regime.

This is how the state has responded to the struggle of independent unions for democracy and human rights in Belarus. Since the disputed presidential election in August 2020, independent unions in Belarus have been under enormous and constant attack, including searches of union offices and unionists’ homes, seizure of mobile phones and laptops, pressure on independent union members to quit their union membership, dismissals of independent union members and, finally, the liquidation of four independent unions and their federation in July 2022.

IndustriALL general secretary Atle Høie says:

“Convicting trade union leaders for exercising their legitimate right to freedom of association constitutes a grave violation of the principles of freedom of association. Trade union rights lose all meaning in the absence of full respect for those civil liberties enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, particularly concerning the right to freedom and security of the individual, freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention, freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of assembly, the right to a fair trial and the right to protection of trade union property”.

Following the latest court decisions to imprison union leaders in Belarus, IndustriALL Global Union and industiALL European Trade Union have written to the European Commission, the European Parliament,  the European Council and the ILO, calling for urgent action, including to express public support for the independent trade union movement of Belarus, and to demand that the Belarusian authorities immediately and unconditionally release the arrested trade unionists and cease the repression of independent trade unions and individuals demanding respect of their human rights.

IndustriALL Global Union and industriAll European Trade Union reiterate the request of the ILO’s Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions (CEACR) to “release all trade unionists who remain in detention and to drop all charges related to participation in peaceful protests and industrial actions.