Political prisoners Belarus risk losing parental rights

Political prisoners from Belarus risk losing custody of their children. The punishment, which mainly targets mothers, is an underreported part of the government’s ongoing campaign to eradicate any possibility of a repeat of the 2020 election protests, writes Elizabeth Owen for Radio Free Europe.

Alena Lazarchyk with her son in 2020. Photo: Nasha Niva via Facebook.

By Elizabeth Owen 

When Alena Maushuk was convicted four years ago of participating in 'mass disorder' after being arrested at a pro-democracy demonstration in the southwestern Belarusian city of Pinsk, she was sentenced to six years in prison. And she was deprived of custody of her two minor children.

The latter punishment, activists say, is an underreported part of the government’s ongoing campaign to eradicate any possibility of a repeat of the unprecedented 2020 protests against a disputed election that handed strongman leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka a sixth term.

'The regime isn’t thinking about the children in these situations,' said Paval Sapelka, a lawyer for the Belarusian human-rights organization Vyasna. 'The regime is blinded by a thirst for revenge against the parents.'

Portrait of Alena Maushuk, part of the Palitvyazynka social media project. Photo: Instagram.

In 2023, Belarusian courts revoked the parental rights of 1,225 men, 595 women, and 467 couples, Brest Regional Court Judge Svetlana Ilyushina told a local news outlet in March. She added that Belarus returned 104 children to their parents in 2023.

Belarus does not acknowledge any political prisoners, so it is unknown how many of those imprisoned in connection with the democracy movement have had their children taken from them. Vyasna has designated some 1,500 people imprisoned in connection with the 2020 demonstrations against Lukashenka as political prisoners.

The only source of information about the termination of parental rights in such cases is the prisoners themselves after their release or their relatives, said Warsaw-based Belarusian journalist-activist Yauhenia Douhaya, who manages the Palitvyazynka social media project, which is devoted to female political prisoners in Belarus. 

'The regime isn’t thinking about the children, but blinded by a thirst for revenge against the parents'

A search for Maushuk’s case on the site of the Belarusian Supreme Court, which maintains a case archive, produced no results. But rights activists and independent media have reported that social workers took her 11-year-old daughter, Anhelina, to an orphanage the day Maushuk was detained. After Maushuk’s sentencing, the government took her other minor daughter, Karyna, from her kindergarten. Anhelina now lives with her godmother; Karina with relatives.

Based on anecdotal evidence, women are far more likely than men to have their parental rights revoked. 'For some reason, when fathers are sent to prison and mothers remain [at home], it’s considered a variation of the norm,' Sapelka said. 'But when mothers go into prison, this very often has been accompanied by various dramatic situations.'

'A hostage of this situation'

One prosecutor, pushing a female prisoner to request clemency, told her son that his mother was giving him up, Douhaya said, citing the prisoner’s account.

Alena Lazarchyk, a 49-year-old activist, was sentenced to eight years in prison in January 2023. She lost custody of her 7-year-old son, who is now in the care of Lazarchyk’s adult daughter Maryna. 'It is so sad that my little one has become a hostage of this situation,' she wrote in a 2022 prison diary published by the independent Russian-language news site Novaya Gazeta Europe. 'It is mean to take things out on the small and defenseless. But they don’t know any other way. It is on their conscience.'

Viktoria Onakhava-Zhuraulyova, the biological mother of four children and foster mother of nine, lost custody of her foster children after she was sentenced in 2022 to three years of house arrest for purportedly slandering Lukashenka, Douhaya told the independent Belsat news outlet.


Belarusian law specifies that abuse, cruelty, neglect, rejection of a child, and an 'amoral lifestyle' that harms the child are all grounds for the loss of parental rights. Human rights observers, however, tend to zero in on presidential decree No. 18. Issued in 2006, this decree authorizes the government to put a child under state care if the parents are judged 'amoral,' are chronic alcoholics or drug addicts, or 'otherwise are not adequately fulfilling their responsibilities for the care and upkeep of children, placing them in a socially dangerous situation.' The decree does not define the terms 'socially dangerous situation' or 'amoral.'

Viktoria Onakhava ZhuraulyovaViktoria Onakhava-Zhuraulyova (back row, center) and her 13 children. Photo: Franak Viacorka on X.

A 'pretext to remove children'

Under a 2023 revision to a 2019 government order, the state can decide a child is in a 'socially dangerous situation' for reasons ranging from parental sexual abuse and unemployment for more than three months to avoiding treatment for a chronic mental illness and squandering child social-welfare payments, Viktoria Finevich, who monitors legislation related to minors for the prosecutor’s office, told the state-run BelTA news agency.

The order makes no mention of a conviction for participating in an unauthorized protest, slandering the president, or creating 'extremist' groups -- charges regularly applied to dissidents. The Marriage And Family Code, however, allows the state to assume the 'defense' of a child if his or her parents are detained or wanted, as well as if they have lost their parental rights.

In a March 20 report that condemned Belarus for depriving citizens of civil rights since the 2020 election protests, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights stated that officials have used the 'socially dangerous situation' clause as a 'pretext' to 'remove children from their parents, leaving some without care or in the custody of relatives or friends.'

Belarus’s UN envoy, Larysa Belskaya, denounced the report as an attempt to undermine Belarusian statehood, the government news agency BelTA reported on March 20. She did not directly address the termination of parental rights and asserted that Belarus does not have political prisoners.

'Families who once came to the attention of government agencies will stay there for a certain period'

Under Belarusian law, to have their parental rights restored, parents must compensate the state for caring for their children. In addition, the court must check whether the parents’ 'behavior and lifestyle have changed' and 'clarify their attitude toward raising children,' according to the administration of Minsk’s Pershamaiski district. Officials can conduct 'raids' on the homes of parents who lost their children for 'socially dangerous' reasons as well as visit the residences for a year and 'help,' Finevich said.

The U.S. State Department’s 2023 human rights report for Belarus cited one instance in which a political prisoner regained custody of her infant daughter after the Supreme Court upheld her appeal and suspended her three-year prison sentence. What government monitoring that woman has since undergone is unclear, but Finevich said: 'Families who once came to the attention of government agencies will stay there for a certain period.'

This article was first published by Radio Free Europe. It is based on reporting by Current Time and RFE/RL’s Belarusian Service.