Belarusian authorities are forcing political prisoners to publicly repent to be freed, activists say

TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — Human rights activists on Monday accused Belarusian authorities of setting unacceptable conditions for the release of political prisoners, including writing public statements admitting their guilt and repenting.

The accusation comes just days after President Alexander Lukashenko promised to release those who are seriously ill and those who were swept up during the 2020 mass protests against his rule.

The number of those freed so far has reached at least 18, according to activists, among them opposition party leader Ryhor Kastusiou who is suffering from a severe form of cancer. The United States and the European Union have welcomed the release of some political prisoners but called on Belarus to free all those jailed during the 2020 protests.

Some were released under an amnesty while others were pardoned. Those who were pardoned had to publicly admit their guilt. Some political prisoners have refused to write such a letter as they do not believe they are guilty, the Viasna human rights center said.

There are currently 1,420 political prisoners behind bars in Belarus, including Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ales Bialiatski. Of those, more than 200 people are seriously ill and require medical care, Viasna said.

Viasna’s Pavel Sapelka said that “dozens, not hundreds” of political prisoners were released following Lukashenko's July 3 announcement and suggested that authorities have already filled up empty jail cells with new political prisoners.

Lukashenko has suppressed the opposition and independent media since coming to power in 1994. The disputed results of the 2020 presidential election allowed him to win a sixth term and sparked protests that were the largest and longest in the country’s history.

Authorities responded harshly, arresting some 35,000 people; many prominent opposition figures were jailed and others fled the country.

Activists say authorities have created conditions akin to torture in prisons, depriving political prisoners of medical care, transfers and meetings with lawyers and relatives.

“Despite the hellish conditions of detention in prison, some famous Belarusians did not admit guilt, did not publicly repent and ask Lukashenko for mercy,” Sapelka said.