Human rights organizations are sounding the alarm over the death of artist and political dissident Ales Pushkin, who was being held in the Grodno prison in western Belarus. The 57-year-old Belarusian artist, who reportedly was not known to be ill, died in an intensive care unit this Monday, July 10 in what PEN America and other groups have described as “unclear circumstances.”
The news was first announced by Janina Demuch, Pushkin’s wife, in a Facebook post. Reports in Belarusian media, which have not been independently verified by Hyperallergic, say the artist died from complications of a perforated ulcer and that he did not receive medical treatment in a timely manner.
“Given the Belarusian authorities’ practice of isolating political prisoners, Pushkin’s death is a distressing example of how the government violates human rights with impunity,” Julie Trebault, director of PEN America’s Artists at Risk Connection, said in a statement.
Pushkin was celebrated for his highly provocative performance pieces that criticized the Belarusian state, and the authoritarian regime of Belarusian dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko in particular. Among his most famous works is “Dung For The President” (1999), which involved unloading a wheelbarrow of manure in front of the presidential building in Minsk where Lukashenko resides. That performance landed him behind bars for two years, but it was far from the first time he was arrested for speaking out against the government. Pushkin was in and out of prison throughout his life, persecuted for both his art practice and his participation in advocacy and protests calling for creative liberty and free expression.
The artist was detained in 2021 after exhibiting a portrait of anti-Soviet fighter Yauhen Zhykhar with a gun on his shoulder. He was sentenced to five years on charges of desecrating state symbols and inciting hatred through the “rehabilitation of Nazism.” (Zhykhar is said to have collaborated with the Nazis during the occupation of Belarus in the summer of 1944, though Pushkin and his supporters have emphasized Zhykhar’s significance to Bolshevik resistance movements.) When the verdict was announced, Pushkin removed his clothing to reveal cut marks on his stomach in the shape of a cross; he was held in solitary confinement for two weeks.
Lukashenko, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has spoken out in support of the invasion of Ukraine and has a track record of clamping down on dissent and repressing independent journalism. When Lukashenko was re-elected to power in August 2020 in an election that watchdog groups have characterized as manipulated, the state responded with a brutal crackdown on opposition leaders and peaceful protesters. According to the Human Rights Center Viasna, nearly 1,500 political prisoners are in jail in Belarus, including pro-democracy activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Ales Bialiatski.
“We note that this is not the first death incident in places of deprivation of liberty,” Viasna said in a statement about Pushkin’s death. “Thousands of prisoners in Belarusian jails daily suffer from poor conditions, including violating their constitutional healthcare rights. Furthermore, prisoners die every year in places of deprivation of liberty due to the lack of proper medical assistance … It constitutes an unacceptable practice that violates human rights.”