By Jonah McKeown
Catholic blogger and father Ihar Losik remains incarcerated in Belarus more than three years after being arrested for criticizing the country’s regime. Prior to his sentencing, Losik wrote to Pope Francis to ask for prayers and support for himself and other political prisoners.
Losik, 31, was sentenced to 15 years in prison in December 2021 following a five-month trial. He joins an estimated 1,400 other political prisoners in the country, many of whom have reportedly been subjected to various forms of mistreatment, including torture.
In his August 2021 letter to Pope Francis, Losik described the hopelessness he has experienced while languishing in prison, even to the point of contemplating and attempting suicide. He has undertaken two hunger strikes while in prison, and has only been allowed to see his wife on a single occasion and his young daughter not at all.
“Threats were made to my family, my 2-year-old daughter — these people hold nothing sacred. They just decided to finish me off. They left me no other option but to prove my innocence posthumously. I tried to cut open my veins,” he told the pontiff. “Fifteen years in prison for nothing, without seeing my daughter is worse than death.”
“I am not asking you to advocate for me. I am asking to stand up for good, truth, and justice, for thousands of Belarusians who have despaired in the same and even worse situations,” he continued.
“I am asking Your Holiness to call on these terrible people who do not care about the lives of others, of hundreds of grief-stricken families, to stop … Maybe I am too naive, and this letter will never reach you. Nevertheless, I am writing it completely sincerely and from the bottom of my heart. I believe that I am writing it for a reason. I really want to believe that God has not abandoned us, that this senseless cruelty will stop, that no one else will die and everyone will return to their families.”
Deniz Yuksel, senior advocacy officer for RadioFreeEurope/Radio Liberty, based in Washington, D.C., told CNA that Losik wrote the letter at a point of great desperation in his life while being held in tortuous conditions at a pretrial detention center. She said that he clearly trusted that Pope Francis may be able to do something for him.
“As a devout Catholic, I think he felt that Pope Francis was somebody that could support him, both morally but also as an advocate,” Yuksel said.
She said she does not know for sure whether Losik has yet received a response, or if a response has reached him. Losik has been incommunicado since February, with only secondhand reports attesting to the fact that he is still alive. Yuksel said there have been periods of no contact during his imprisonment before, but this one is the longest.
To make matters worse, Losik’s wife, Daria, was also detained in October 2022 and is now serving a two-year prison sentence herself. Their toddler, Paulina, has been living with her maternal grandparents and has not seen her father.
“I am very anxious that she will forget me or even forget the word ‘dad,’” Losik lamented in his letter.
Losik worked as a freelance social media manager, commentator, and news analyst at Radio Svaboda, the Belarusian service of RadioFreeEurope/Radio Liberty, a U.S.-funded news organization that broadcasts primarily to former Soviet Union nations where freedom of the press is restricted.
Radio Svaboda operates out of Prague and Vilnius, Lithuania, and broadcasts via various forms of media into Belarus. As a journalist, Losik covered human rights violations by the government with an eye toward democracy. His use of the Belarusian language was itself subversive, as the country’s regime has sought to sideline the language in favor of Russian.
He was arrested in June 2020 and was later tried on charges widely considered to have been fabricated by Belarusian authorities, including incitement of hatred, “organization and preparation of actions that grossly violate public order,” and “preparation for participation in riots,” RFE/RL reported. Yuksel said several other RFE/RL journalists have been detained in recent years, including the web editor of Radio Svaboda who is also detained and in a similar situation, serving time in the same prison, as far as is known.
“The vast majority of Belarusian independent media is now either completely shut down or operating outside the country,” Yuksel noted.
Belarus is essentially ruled by the authoritarian president Alexander Lukashenko, who has been at the helm ever since the office was created in 1994. He clung to power after a disputed presidential election in August 2020 in which he claimed to have won 80% of the vote. Lukashenko’s power rests primarily in the fealty of the country’s security services.
Belarus is tightly intertwined with its ally, Russia, and has provided vital support in Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine. According to press freedom monitoring groups, the country has a dismal human rights record, and perceived dissidents are frequently detained.
Tensions between the Belarusian government and the Church came to a head amid a major crisis following the 2020 disputed election, when former Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, president of the nation’s Catholic bishops’ conference, was barred for a time from returning to Belarus following a trip to Poland; the reason appeared to be his speaking in defense of protestors amid the post-election crisis. Kondrusiewicz was finally allowed back into the country after a four-month exile, submitting his resignation soon afterward on his 75th birthday.
That same year, two Catholic priests, Father Viktar Zhuk, SJ, and Father Alyaksei Varanko, were detained for several days in northeastern Belarus in what observers decried as part of a campaign to intimidate the Catholic Church.
Despite the clashes, the Belarusian government has repeatedly invited Pope Francis to visit the country.