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 best known for his highly provocative performance pieces that criticized the Belarusian state and 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 Pushkin behind bars for two years, but it was not the first time he was arrested for speaking out against the country’s authoritarian regime. The artist was in and out of prison throughout his life, persecuted for both his creative practice and his participation in protests calling for free speech and for Belarusian autonomy from Russia.
The artist was detained in 2021 after exhibiting a portrait of 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 role in the post-war Belarusian resistance and stressed that the artwork was “in no way a justification for the ideology and practice of Nazism.” 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.
Pushkin often referred to his 1996 mural at the Orthodox church in his native town of Bobr as the work he was most proud of. The painting, which referenced the Biblical episode of the Last Judgment, was quickly covered up after a television report revealed that the faces of the condemned sinners were reminiscent of Lukashenko.
Lukashenko, an ally of President Vladimir Putin, has spoken in support of the invasion of Ukraine and recently allowed Russia to station tactical nuclear weapons on its soil. The Belarusian leader 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 people in Belarus are considered political prisoners, 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.”