On October 6, the Minsk regional court sentenced employees of BelaPAN news agency to long prison terms. Human rights activists and journalists in Belarus believe this is a revenge move by Alexander Lukashenko's regime against critical journalists.
BelaPAN, the oldest independent news agency in Belarus, shut down in November 2021 after Belarusian authorities labeled it an "extremist organization."
The defendants in the BelaPAN case are the editor and director of the agency, Irina Levshina, former director Dmitry Novozhilov, media manager Andrei Alexandrov and his wife, Irina Zlobina. The trial took place behind closed doors for four months. Alexandrov was sentenced to 14 years in prison, Zlobina, who ran an own business and didn't work at BelaPAN, to nine years, Levshina to four years, and Novozhilov to six.
What were the accusations?
On August 18, 2021, security forces searched the editorial office and employees' homes, blocked websites, seized servers, and detained several journalists, an accountant, and the agency's management. As a result of those raids, Levshina and Novozhilov ended up in custody. Initially, they were charged with participation in illegal protests. However, they were later also accused of tax evasion.
On November 12, 2021, BelaPAN was labeled an extremist formation, and the charge was changed — Levshina was accused of creating such a group and Novozhilov of both tax evasion and the creation of an extremist formation.
The Investigative Committee (IC) reported that BelaPAN's management evaded taxes between 2015 and 2021. The damage was 449,000 Belarusian rubles (about €170.000; $166,000). In addition, according to investigators, 18 foreign organizations have provided funding for the agency to the tune of at least $1.6 million (€1.64 million) since 2014.
Andrei Alexandrov, the deputy director of the news agency from 2014-2018, and his wife, entrepreneur Irina Zlobina, were detained in early 2021 on charges of financing illegal protests and paying fines for detainees at demonstrations.
Alexandrov, who formerly worked as a freelance reporter at DW's Russian desk and a lecturer at DW's Academy, was accused of creating an extremist formation, tax evasion in BelaPAN, as well as financing protests. The investigators believe Alexandrov and Zlobina paid more than 250 fines worth at least $4 million through the By_help charity foundation. Alexey Leonchik, the founder of By_help, told DW that the accusation was far-fetched: "Alexandrov helped pay fines, and he does not deny it. Nevertheless, I do not know how they came up with $4 million. If he helped pay 250 fines, as the IC indicated, it turns out that each fine was $16,000. That is a strange calculation."
The defendants in the BelaPAN case were recognized as political prisoners.
An unfair trial
"This is revenge because the journalists professionally performed their duties, conveying truthful information to the public," says Oleg Ageev, deputy chairman of the Belarusian Association of Journalists. "The state is now making people criminally liable for exercising their right to freedom of opinion and dissemination of information. The accusation against the BelaPAN employees is an attempt to disguise political persecution."
As for the closed process, Ageev notes that neither the court nor the prosecutor's office provided information on the advisability of keeping it behind closed doors. "This is a violation of the right of the accused to a fair trial," Ageev says.
"Society should know what people are being tried for. Moreover, the accused should have the right to convey their position in an open trial. Exceptions are allowed, but the court must reasonably explain why the trial will be closed. We did not observe this in the BelaPAN case."
Ageev draws attention to the fact that in the BelaPAN case another negative trend of Belarusian justice is noticeable. "A person is detained and placed in a pretrial detention center under one article code and then they start changing the charges."
"This indicates that initially there was an arbitrary detention," the expert explains. "When an individual is in a pretrial detention center, it is easier to put pressure on him — this is the calculation of the Belarusian security forces. Furthermore, this confirms that the persecution of BelaPAN employees is politically motivated. The BelaPAN was declared an extremist group, and in Belarus, such a procedure was created so that the defendants could not appeal against it and they are being tried for this."
Reporters say that in recent months letters have not reached the defendants. "According to relatives and lawyers, there are no health complaints. They are in good spirits," former BelaPAN journalist Tanya Korovenkova told DW.
Belarusian human rights activists do not recognize the trial in the BelaPAN case as fair and are demanding the immediate release of political prisoners.
This piece was originally published in Russian.