Leaders of the international writers’ organisation PEN have condemned the closing of PEN Belarus in Minsk following a ruling by the country’s Supreme Court.  Suppression of freedom of speech and a crackdown on independent media and civil society organisations continues under the rule of President Alexander Lukashenko who is often described as Europe’s last dictator.

PEN Belarus was founded in 1989 and joined PEN International the following year.  Jennifer Clement, PEN International president, said:  “The PEN community strongly condemns the closure of the Belarusian PEN Centre. That the Belarusian authorities moved to shut down the centre on the one-year anniversary of the country’s disputed presidential elections last year is a tragic reminder of the myriad violations faced by the brave people of Belarus in recent months and their resolve in the face of adversity.

“The PEN community stands by the Belarusian PEN Centre and all the people in Belarus who continue to tirelessly fight for their rights. We call on the Belarusian authorities to immediately reverse the dissolution of the Belarusian PEN Centre, and to urgently uphold the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly.”

She added: “In the time since, [the authorities] have arbitrarily detained over 35,000 people and subjected hundreds to torture and other ill-treatment. Since July 2021, they have escalated their ruthless attack on independent media and civil society, detaining dozens of journalists and shutting down over 100 human rights and civil society organisations, including the Belarusian PEN Centre.”

Belarus has been on the watch list of the International Publishers Association (IPA) for some time.  Last year Kristen Einarsson, Chair of the IPA’s Freedom to Publish Committee said:  “There is a long history of repression of freedom of expression in Belarus. In 2014, the IPA awarded its Prix Voltaire — for bravery in upholding Freedom to Publish in the face of intimidation and harassment — to Belarusian publisher Ihar Lohvinau.  After receiving the award, Lohvinau had his license to publish cancelled and was forced to publish in exile from Lithuania.”