Belarus: Marfa Rabkova, imprisoned for documenting human rights violations

Update on September 6, 2022: after four months and a half of closed court hearings, the Minsk City Court sentenced Marfa Rabkova to 15 years in prison. Charges included "organising mass riots", "inciting social hostility to the government", and "involvement in a criminal organisation". Her sentence can be appealed.

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Marfa Rabkova has not seen her husband Vadzim since the night of September 17, 2020, when around 10 masked men from the Main Department for Combating Organised Crime and Corruption violently detained the couple on their way back home, in Minsk. They were put in two different cars. While Vadzim was released the day after, Marfa was brought to the Okrestina pre-detention centre in Minsk, infamous for the torture and ill-treatment of protesters in August. She remains imprisoned on charges of “training people to participate in mass riots or financing such activities”.

The real reason for the detention of the 26-year-old is the crucial role she has played coordinating the volunteer service at Viasna (“Spring”), a leading human rights group in Belarus. Her charisma and team spirit caught the attention of many people, who ultimately decided to join the organisation as volunteers to ensure the respect of human rights in the country. Together with other members of the human rights community, Marfa guided the Viasna group of volunteers as they independently monitored the August 9, 2020 presidential elections.

When the authorities started brutally repressing nationwide demonstrations contesting the results, the volunteers monitored peaceful assemblies and documented the systematic torture and ill-treatment of the thousands of detained protesters. In short, they worked to expose the grave human rights violations perpetrated by Belarusian authorities.

News footage from that period shows Marfa bringing food parcels to prison and saying: “Political prisoners have limited access to information, letters and meetings are forbidden. For them a parcel is not only food, it’s news from the other side, it means “we are with you, we remember you. Stay strong”.

Marfa is now the one behind bars – ironically in the same place where she was bringing the parcels she had herself prepared -, deprived of any contact with the outside world. Five months after her arrest, the State Investigative Committee of Belarus brought new trumped-up charges against her, to prolong her detention. To date, she has not been brought before a court and has been denied visits, whether from her husband or any other family member.

In April, she was finally allowed to write to Vadzim. In the letter, Marfa, who lost 12 kg in detention, speaks of overcoming the initial grief and despair that she had been doing her best to hide: “This passes. Now I not only have a smile on my face, but also in my soul.” According to a former cellmate, “Marfa Rabkova is a concentration of self-sacrifice and willpower. After the call to rise at 6 am, many prisoners try to snatch five minutes. Marfa immediately gets up, makes her bed, changes clothes, reads and writes until 10 pm in between the prison schedule.”

Her husband is confident. Marfa, he says, “has a great spirit. She won’t break down.”

Marfa was one of the first members of Viasna to be targeted. Many others have since been arrested, have seen their homes raided or been otherwise harassed as part of the brutal crackdown on all dissenting voices that goes on in Belarus. Human rights defenders have either been forced into exile or remain imprisoned. Those who have decided to stay know they can be arrested and prosecuted at any time.

Join our call to immediately release Marfa Rabkova!

Update in August 2021: Marfa has health problems. She has been unable to say farewell to her father and grandmother, who recently passed away. Despite this, she's repeatedly rejected official offers to admit guilt in exchange for her release.