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Nasta Loika: “Working on the future of Belarus helps me face the present”

Update: Nasta Loika was detained in Minsk on August 13, 2021. She was released three days later but the fabricated charges against her were not lifted. As of August 2022, she is awaiting trial and remains under a travel ban, all due to her human rights work.

Nasta Loika’s human rights calling started early. The Belarusian lawyer is only in her early 30es but has already worked for 13 years with leading Belarusian human rights group Viasna (“Spring”), where she founded the volunteer service. More recently, she contributed to the creation of Human Constanta, another rights group that the authorities closed down on July 23, as part of a vast offensive against civil society over the past year. She is one of the relatively few activists at high risk to stubbornly refuse to leave her country.

What strikes you most when you look back on the past year?

There have been many negative developments, but also some impressive new trends. First of all, the fact that whole sectors of the population took a stand. For example, LGBTI people joined the Sunday marches that started after the rigged presidential election on August 9, 2020. This was extremely courageous given the anti-gay environment. I was also deeply impressed by the participation of people with disabilities, pensioners, students, and of course women – to the extent that I felt sorry that I could not take part in the rallies, because I felt this was incompatible with my human rights activities.

One particular highlight is the relationship between the Belarusian Catholic church and the LGBTI community. In September 2020, the team at MAKEOUT, a magazine about gender and sexuality, published a statement in support of the Catholic church, which was being harassed by the authorities. This despite the Catholic church collecting signatures in support of legislation against ‘gay propaganda’ earlier in the year. Both groups have since expressed solidarity with each other in face of the widespread repression. Such examples are extremely precious for me. It’s the future I would like to see for Belarus.

  • One year ago, what were you hoping for Belarus?

Already in May 2020, I had no doubt there would be mass protests that would meet with violence and torture, that large numbers of people would become political prisoners. But I thought the protests would be over by October. I am amazed that there are still people willing to organise rallies, paste white paper on their windows or use other forms of protest, regardless of courts sentencing Belarusians for such actions.

  • How has the repression affected you personally?

My friends and acquaintances have been arrested, tortured, prosecuted, their houses have been searched. Last month, the authorities searched our organisation, Human Constanta, then liquidated it. I keep being part of volunteer initiatives to help victims of the repression, but this activism now requires a lot of security measures.

Compared to others, I’ve been only indirectly affected. The whole situation has nonetheless taken a serious psychological toll. Since last autumn, I’ve started experiencing health issues and I’ve had to struggle with acute anxiety.

  • How has your determination to change things evolved?

I have always been working for change in society. The novelty is that now my colleagues and I are exploring what reforms might look like once democracy has taken over in Belarus, for example prison reform. I profoundly hope that the traumatising prison experience of thousands of political prisoners will lead to a more humane society, a more empathetic one that is ready to reject the punitive detention model. I know such reforms would take at least 10 years but working on the future helps me face the present.

  • What do you wish for the future?

I would love to see a society that respects the rule of law, that protects human rights, and where the people have a say in solving public issues. A Belarus where each institution works for the people, based on the principles of humanity and accountability. I would like my country to become an example for the transformation of the whole region, a beacon of human rights.

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