Yulia Slutskaya is a well-known Belarus journalist with a proven track record. She founded the independent Press Club Belarus, an organization that seeks to advance the country’s independent media landscape and receives funding from the EU. But her media work came to a halt when security officers asked Slutskaya to use a different customs exit at Minsk airport on November 22, 2020, vanishing without a trace.
Her daughter, Alexandra Slutskaya, says that for 24 hours, no one knew her mother’s whereabouts. “It turned out that she sat all night with criminal investigators who had ‘friendly talks’ with her,” Alexandra says in an interview with DW. Without a lawyer present, the agents then took Yulia to her apartment, the alleged “crime scene.”
Authorities then charged Yulia with tax evasion.
Intimidating the press
Belarus authorities claim other members of the Belarus Press Club are complicit in the tax fraud. Some of Slutskaya’s colleagues, as well as independent journalist Ksenia Lutskina, were also arrested.
Alexandra Slutskaya says she has not received any letters from her imprisoned mother for a month. She is only able to communicate through Yulia’s lawyer. “She is being held in an eight-person cell,” says Alexandra. “There is very little light, almost all the inmates smoke, which is why the cell is always cold.” She adds that her mother needs her allergy medication. Alexandra insists that Belarus authorities have yet to present evidence of her mother’s alleged crime.
Human rights activists are convinced Yulia Slutskaya’s is being detained for political reasons. “We know nothing about the legal foundation at the heart of this the criminal investigation and the pressure exerted on the press club,” deputy chairman of the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), Boris Gorezkij, tells DW.
“But accusations of economic crimes are a well-known means to exert pressure in Belarus.”
Vanishing without trace
On January 12, 2020, the country’s high-profile journalist Andrei Alexandrov disappeared. One day later, his lawyer was informed about his client’s arrest. Alexandrov was initially accused of having “severe violation of Minsk’s public order.” Yet here, too, authorities have failed to present any evidence to support their accusations. Alexandrov was later accused of having helped “finance” anti-government rallies and unrest.
Alexandrov’s alleged offense may have to do with a peculiarity within the justice system. In Belarus, individuals remanded in custody are required to pay for each day spent behind bars. Alexandrov is accused of having foot the bill for jailed anti-governmental activists. The foundation that provided the money in question, along with friends of Alexandrov, have dismissed these accusations as “absurd” and “ridiculous.”
Offices of the country’s private Belapan news agency — for which Alexandrov worked — were searched in connection with the investigation. Technical equipment was also seized.
Crackdowns after contested election
Yulia Slutskaya and Andrei Alexandrov are two of 10 journalists currently in jail. In recent months, hundreds of Belarus journalists have been subjected to violence, threats and other forms of state intimidation. “On election day, August 9, 363 journalists were arrested; 78 were serving jail time for administrative offenses,” Alice Bota of German weekly Die Zeit tweeted in reference to figures collated by the country’s independent journalism association.
Alexander Lukashenko, who has governed Belarus for 26 years, once more ran for office in August last year. He was sworn in as president following the contested election, which was marred by accusations of widespread electoral fraud. Election experts say the vote was neither free nor fair, with many questioning the veracity of the official election results.
Since the August vote, hundreds of thousands of Belarus nationals have taken to the streets to protest against Lukashenko — who has managed to maintain his grip on power with his loyal — and brutal — security forces. But to maintain this grip, observers note, the Belarusian autocrat is also targeting independent journalists and bloggers.
Germany vows to support civil society
On January 20, non-governmental organization Reporters Without Borders urged the German government to “provide immediate, unbureaucratic assistance to persecuted journalists in Belarus.” The group says right now, Belarus is Europe’s most dangerous country for journalists to work in.
The German government has repeatedly condemned the contested presidential election result and subsequent crackdowns on protests. Berlin also supports EU sanctions against the Lukashenko regime. In addition, Germany’s Foreign Ministry announced in January that the country will provide €21 million ($25 million) to support Belarus civil society in light of “the huge sacrifices” it is forced to make.
Yet Lukashenko, who is backed by Russia, has so far appeared undeterred by Western pressure.