Belarus: the right notes under the wrong order

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Pavel Arakelian - imprisoned after jazz party

It might be hard times for jazz in the UK and the nominally free West but for a mild corrective consider the context of Belarus, where, reports Amnesty International, it’s the government, not just Covid-19, that is silencing creative endeavour.

Amnesty International reports that in the Eastern European country, bordering the EU states of Poland, Lithuania and Latvia and 160 miles from Warsaw, many in the arts world have been jailed for suggesting that the government of Alyaksandr Lukashenka, returned to power following a widely disputed election last year, isn’t the most liberal of organisations.

Aisha Jung, Amnesty International’s Senior Campaigner on Belarus said “The scale of repression against the Belarusian cultural scene cannot be underestimated. The authorities are methodically destroying Belarus’ spirited cultural life and its most creative members, in an effort to suppress all vestiges of free expression and dissent.

“Those who dare to voice criticism of the Belarusian authorities, through creative and artistic means, are being relentlessly persecuted.”

Amnesty’s report gives examples of the harassment, arrest and detention by Belarusian authorities of musicians who’ve voiced dissatisfaction with the election.

Belarusian jazz musician Pavel Arakelian described one such incident to Euronews. At neighbourhood parties the muscular post-bop saxophonist (seen in performance on YouTube) regularly performs jazz adaptations of traditional songs speaking of liberation. After one party, 7 November 2020, he was arrested on the way home and sentenced to 15 days in jail. He said “We live in a police state where people in black masks can just come up and arrest you, kill you or do whatever they like.”

Protests erupted in Belarus after an election on 9 August 2020 in which Lukashenka (the only president of Belarus since the establishment of the office 26 years ago) claimed to have received 80 per cent of the vote. The opposition, led by Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, called the result a fraud and since then, opposition supporters have held demonstrations, with, at the high point, up to 200,000 attending rallies in Minsk. The EU and the USA don’t recognise Lukashenka as the legitimate president of Belarus.

Amnesty say more than 27,000 people have been detained under administrative legislation since the election. Their campaign to raise awareness of the situation in Belarus is on social media under the tag #StandWithBelarus.