A Belarusian artist who once dumped manure outside the office of President Alexander Lukashenko has died in the prison where he was serving a five-year sentence for his political activities, human rights activists and his wife said.
Ales Pushkin, 57, died in a prison on Tuesday in Grodno in western Belarus of unknown causes, even though he was not known to be sick, according to the Viasna human rights centre.
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Pushkin’s wife, Janina Demuch, told The Associated Press that the artist had “died in the intensive care unit of the prison under unclear circumstances”.
There was no comment from the Belarusian authorities.
😭Artist and political prisoner Ales Pushkin died in intensive care under unclear circumstances. His wife wrote about it on Facebook.
For many years he had been friends with the head of Viasna Ales Bialiatski. pic.twitter.com/jziNJcHGBh
— #FreeViasna (@FreeViasna) July 11, 2023
Pushkin was a political performer and cartoonist whose subject was often Lukashenko, the country’s authoritarian leader. The artist painted Lukashenko in hell, surrounded by riot police, on a fresco in a church in the Belarusian city of Bobr.
In 1999, Pushkin was sentenced to two years for “Dung for the President”, in which he overturned a dung cart at the entrance to the presidential office in the capital, Minsk.
Pushkin was an active participant in protests by the political opposition.
In March 2021, he was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison for inciting hatred and “desecration of state symbols”. Allegedly, at one of his exhibitions, Pushkin painted a Belarusian nationalist – a member of the post-war anti-Soviet resistance – who had collaborated with the Nazis during World War II.
At his sentencing hearing, Pushkin undressed in protest, for which he was placed in solitary confinement for 13 days.
Belarus was gripped by large protests when Lukashenko was re-elected in August 2020 in a ballot the opposition and the West denounced as a sham.
The authorities responded with a brutal crackdown that resulted in the arrest of more than 35,000 people, police beatings and the shutdown of many non-governmental organisations and independent media outlets.
According to Viasna, Belarus has jailed nearly 1,500 political prisoners, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Ales Bialiatski.
Exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said that Belarus has lost one of its most “talented” and “fearless sons” with the death of Pushkin who “died a political prisoner of the regime”, for which Lukashenko and “his cronies” bore responsibility.
“Ales used his art to fight for freedom & build a new Belarus without tyranny. He dreamed of a free & democratic Belarus. Now we must continue his work & make his dream come true,” Tsikhanouskaya wrote on Twitter.
“Dictators fear artists,” she said.
Belarus has lost one of its most talented & fearless sons. Ales Pushkin was the embodiment of the indomitable spirit of the Belarusian people. He died as a political prisoner of the regime & the responsibility lies with his jailor, Lukashenka & his cronies.
Ales used his art to… pic.twitter.com/lIRaQ0taI4
— Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya (@Tsihanouskaya) July 11, 2023
“They hold a mirror to the world, one that tyrants dread to look into. I hope that this tragedy will be a wake-up call to the world. How many more people must die behind bars?” she added.
“I call for a strong international reaction to this death & the ongoing inhuman treatment of political prisoners.”
Lukashenko’s regime, reclusive for years, has become even more isolated after brutally suppressing protests and allowing Russia to use Belarusian territory to launch its Ukraine offensive.