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Breaking Into The Hidden World Of Belarus Prisons

In a country where independent journalists work at risk, Alena Pankratava was named Belarus’s “Journalist of the Year” for 2014 by the human rights group Rights Alliance for her reporting on daily life in the country’s prisons.

Belarus, which consistently ranks at the bottom of Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press Report (193/197 in 2014), has a large prison population that includes journalists and civil society activists who are imprisoned for exercising their rights to free assembly and free speech.

“Liberty in Prisons,” Pankratava’s signature 24-minute radio show, is broadcast every week by RFE/RL’s Belarus Service. In it, she reports on daily conditions in prisons, drawing on letters sent to her by prisoners who are currently serving sentences and those who have been released, usually with the author’s name omitted for their protection. The letters relate accounts of harsh treatment, unsanitary conditions, and repeated solitary confinement. Pankratava also interviews prisoners’ family members who hope that by speaking out about their relative’s treatment, conditions might improve.

“The subject is difficult because of the opacity of the penal system in Belarus: independent inspections are rarely, if ever, permitted,” said Bohdan Andrusyshyn, deputy director of the Belarus Service, or Radio Svaboda, as it is known locally. “Prisoners’ complaints about detention conditions or violations of their human rights rarely penetrate the walls of the jails, and those who do dare to complain are often targets of retribution by prison officials.”

Belarus--Alena Pankratava at the presentation of the book "Prison and Health," which she edited, in Minsk. April 25, 2013.
Belarus--Alena Pankratava at the presentation of the book "Prison and Health," which she edited, in Minsk. April 25, 2013.

Pankratava says the letters are usually redacted and censored by prison staff, but that she also receives complaints from prisoners by phone.

“Among the reports that received the most comments on our website were stories concerning the quality of food and medical care afforded to prisoners,” said Pankratava. “At one time there were reports from inside a prison asserting that agricultural feed concentrates were being added to prisoners’ rations.”

In addition to reporting first-hand accounts, Pankratava demonstrates the problems in Belarus’s penitentiary system by comparing it to that in other countries. In 2014 she visited prisons in Sweden and devoted several installments of the program to her findings.

The information obtained by Pankratava in the course of her reporting became the foundation for a book, “Prison and Health,” by renowned researcher Dr. Yuri Bandazheuski. Bandazheuksi’s aim was to provide a manual to current and potential prisoners with tips on maintaining their physical and mental health behind bars.

“It’s not advocacy,” said Pankratava. “I’m just fulfilling my role as a journalist by telling stories largely unknown to Belarusians.”

Pankratava is not the first RFE/RL contributor to be recognized by Rights Alliance. In 2009, the group’s “Journalist of the Year” prize was awarded to Belarus Service correspondent Aleh Hruzdzilovich.

Upon his release from prison in June 2014, prominent human rights defender Ales Byalyatski personally thanked Hruzdzilovich for steadfast coverage of his case, which he said kept his plight and that of other political prisoners in the media spotlight.

In response to the fact that so many of Belarus’s human rights defenders and democracy activists spend time in jail, the Belarus Service has long treated coverage of prisoners’ issues as an integral part of its reporting mission. On December 10, 2014, the service co-sponsored an awards ceremony honoring literature produced inside the country’s prisons. Guests included former political prisoner and honoree Pavel Seviaryniec, whose book, "I Love Belarus," was written while he was under house arrest.

--Emily Thompson