On 31st October, human rights defender Katsiaryna Borsuk, executive director of LGBT Human Rights Project “GayBelarus,” gave an insightful and provoking lecture on LGBT rights in Belarus, and the freedom, or lack thereof, Belarusians have to peacefully protest in the country.
The event served a two-fold purpose, the first enabling Borsuk to inform the audience of the appalling level of governmental corruption within the country. Following its independence in 1991, Belarus saw its President Alexander Lukashenko rise to power in the 1994 elections. Since then, he has made dictatorial constitutional changes to ensure that he stays in power, and currently remains the President of the country. Elections have been manipulated, and laws have been put in place which dramatically curtail the ability for oppositional parties to pose a real threat to Lukashenko’s regime. Stemming from this restrictive environment, laws have made it nearly impossible for anyone, including human rights groups, to protest against the President or the state; Belarus is a country where freedom of expression is drastically repressed.
This became all the more apparent when Borsuk discussed her work for LGBT rights in Belarus, giving audiences an informative history of LGBT activism from 1990 to the present day. Following a rise of LGBT activism in the ‘90s and early 2000s, the years 2004-2006 was a silent period of LGBT movements in the country. However, recent years have seen a resurgence in LGBT activism in Belarus; the International LGBT Conference was held in Minsk in 2008, where reports from 28 countries were discussed pertaining to LGBT issues, and debates were held over society’s perception of LGBT individuals. Additionally, Borsuk’s group, GayBelarus, collaborated with Slavic Gay Pride in Moscow in 2009, before holding their own Slavic Pride in Minsk in 2010.
Unfortunately, this LGBT activism is conducted under a wave of repression, censorship, and fears of imprisonment and torture. 10 Belarusian delegates were detained when they attended the Moscow Pride, and when they returned to Minsk they were interrogated by the KGB, who have the legal permission to torture individuals. Additionally, between 2011 and 2012, Borsuk’s organisation applied 120 times for permission to hold a public demonstration. Only 1 was successful, and after applying twice to have their organisation registered in 2013, GayBelarus is still deemed an illegal group.
What is more alarming was Katsiaryna’s concerns regarding the increasing persecution of LGBT individuals in the country. 70 out of the 100 signatories advocating GayBelarus’ registration have been interrogated by the KGB, and they had to change offices 3 times in 2013. Furthermore, in the wider LGBT community, 12 gay nightclubs were raided, and 300 people were arrested during the year. According to Borsuk, persecution of LGBT individuals and movements has recently become a key focus of the government, and that conditions are only going to get worse.
The talk, whilst immensely enlightening, carried an overall tone of darkness and concern regarding the current state of affairs in Belarus, and for LGBT individuals in particular. However, a shimmer of light pervading this darkness came in the form of Katsiaryna herself. The work she, and the countless LGBT activists in Belarus do, is inspirational, especially given the conditions that they work under. Stopping at one point to apologise for her emotional delivery of certain issues, it is clear that Katsiaryna is deeply passionate about her work, and I am sure that everyone left the room yesterday feeling that more should be done in the international community to raise awareness of the political situation in Belarus, and with regards to the tragic predicament of LGBT individuals in the country specifically.
The Centre of Applied Human Rights’ Human Rights Defenders lecture series continues on Friday 14th November, when speaker Hikma Ahmed will discuss the position of women living in Sudan.
by Connor Briggs, Co Chair of York PEN