Viasna member Natallia Satsunkevich: “What’s going on in Belarus is not only about my country… we are all connected.”
Natallia Satsunkevich, a representative of 2020 Right Livelihood Laureate Viasna visited the Human Rights Council in Geneva in March to raise awareness about the dire human rights situation in her native Belarus. Her visit coincided with the final phase of a politically motivated trial against the head of Viasna, Right Livelihood and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Ales Bialiatski, his deputy and FIDH Vice-President Valiantsin Stefanovich and Viasna’s lawyer Ualdzimir Labkovich in Belarus. We talked to Natallia shortly after the final verdict in which her colleagues were sentenced to 10, 9 and 7 years of prison respectively.
Right Livelihood: How do you feel about the verdict in the criminal case against your colleagues?
Natallia Satsunkevich: I am shocked, and I am angry because my colleagues are persecuted on political issues. They’re accused in smuggling money and preparing mass riots, but they are human rights defenders. They just helped people and helped the whole world to know about human rights violations in Belarus. They’re sentenced up to 10 years of prison, and they already spent 1.5 years in prison in very poor conditions. They have faced a lack of sunlight, poor food, lack of qualified medical help and of course, they don’t meet with their families.
RL: How do you see the future of Viasna and the human rights movement of Belarus in the current circumstances?
NS: Actually, I joined Viasna as a volunteer in 2015, but the organization was founded in 1996, and I am part of a great team of people who are so passionate about courage, human rights, democracy, equality and respect. I’m proud to be part of this team, and I see how people are feeling responsible for helping others and also for our colleagues who are in prison. That’s our main goal now, to get our colleagues released and also to help people who face human rights violations. At the same time, I see that we receive dozens of requests from people every week, from those who face torture, arrest, and detention, from those who were pushed out of their motherland, from those who face enormous prison terms. And I feel my responsibility is to help them.
I keep optimistic and positive. I see that my personal story is very connected to Belarus’ political situation. I can’t go back home. I think I will be arrested just on the border of the country because of my human rights activities. So, I can go home only when democratic changes are made in Belarus. I am very interested in this happening. I remain optimistic, and I really believe that all good things will win over the bad ones.
RL: How can people around the world support your colleagues, Viasna, and the human rights movement of Belarus in general?
NS: I am extremely grateful to all people who support Viasna, human rights defenders in Belarus, activists and democratic changes in Belarus. It’s a great time to express your solidarity as much as you can, to spread information about Viasna, about Ales Bialiatski, the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate in prison. About other human rights defenders. About the 1,500 political prisoners who are now in Belarus and about other people who suffer, facing human rights violations in Belarus. For political prisoners, for Ales Bialiatski and for my other colleagues, I kindly ask you to write a letter of support, a postcard, and to send it from any country in the world. It will reach Belarus and show Belarusian authorities that each political prisoner is under international attention and support. That will help people to save their health and, in many cases, even their lives.
RL: How is it possible to defend human rights in an authoritarian regime?
NS: It’s not easy, and, in many cases, it is dangerous. Viasna’s 26-year history is full of repression, searches of offices and apartments, fines, arrests, criminal cases and so on. But it is still possible. We see that people realise their rights. People know their rights and people just want to exercise their rights, have freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, take part in voting, to have fair court trials and so on.
Thanks to modern technologies, we can have contact with many people rather safely, not putting ourselves or them in danger, while still using the internet. And also, as I mentioned, Viasna is rather an old and famous organisation, so our reputation also helps us to reach people and get information.
RL: Can you still monitor trials, for instance?
NS: We try to do that and get information from all sources we can. I can’t tell you the details because of security matters, but you can check our website. Last year, we published more than 4,000 materials on human rights, which means that it’s still possible.
RL: At a side event of the 52nd Session of the Human Rights Council, you asked the international community to separate the state of Belarus and the ordinary people of Belarus, especially in the context of the war on Ukraine. Can you please tell us how people of Belarus are resisting this war and at what price?
NS: That’s a great issue. The beginning of the war, the invasion that happened on the 24th of February 2022, was the biggest trigger for a public protest in Belarus. We saw how more than one thousand people were arrested in Belarus, and it was the biggest public protest after the ones in August 2020. You should realise that the price of public protest in Belarus now is extremely high. The person would definitely be arrested, beaten during the arrest, and tortured during imprisonment. It could even be a criminal case.
Up to today, we’ve collected information about 1,500 cases of repressions because of anti-war protests. These cases are very different. Some people were arrested for wearing blue and yellow stripes or commenting on social media. Some people were taking photos of the Russian army and war equipment on the territory of Belarus and passing these photos to the independent media. Some people were trying to destroy railways to slow the movement of Russian weapons to Ukraine. All these people were punished because of their anti-war position. I see that many, many people in Belarus don’t support the war on Ukraine. They struggle for it. They suffer for it.
RL: The verdict against your colleagues might be upsetting for many people of Belarus residing inside and outside of the country. What would be your message to them?
NS: I want to say to everyone to stay optimistic, to keep struggling, to keep the base of human rights and always to keep in mind that all political prisoners should be released and political repressions in Belarus should be stopped.
RL: What gives you the strength to move forward in the current circumstances?
NS: I see the support of my colleagues; I see the support of the whole world. When we receive your letters, postcards, messages, your donations, it means a lot. At the same time, I see both at the grassroots level and high political level that people support democratic changes, that we do the right things. You can tell that what’s going on in Belarus is not only about my country. The world is global, and we are all connected. Also, I feel the support of my family and I am very grateful to them that they support my struggle. To see the possibility in people, is also what keeps me motivated.