The Press Club Belarus office is seen in Minsk, Belarus. Six people associated with the group were recently arrested; one has been deported. (Photo by Yauhenia Naletskaya)

Belarus authorities detain at least 6 in tax investigation of local press club

New York, January 5, 2021 – Belarusian authorities should immediately release those recently detained as part of an investigation into alleged tax evasion by Press Club Belarus, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

On December 22, authorities in Minsk detained five employees of Press Club Belarus as well as Ksenia Lutskina, an independent journalist who recently participated in an event hosted by the club, according to news reports and Nadzeya Belakhvostik, chief editor of the Press Club’s “Media IQ” media literacy project, who spoke with CPJ in a phone interview.

Press Club Belarus is a professional trade organization that conducts educational and cultural initiatives relating to journalism, hosts professional development events, and produces media content, according to its website. The club’s “Press Under Pressure” program catalogues press freedom violations in the country.

All six individuals were arrested as part of a tax evasion investigation into Press Club Belarus, according to news reports.

In the weeks leading up to the arrests, the press club had reported on the detentions of journalists covering anti-government protests, which have taken place since the country’s contested presidential election in August 2020, according to CPJ’s review of the club’s website.

 “Belarusian authorities should not use the country’s tax code to hunt down and imprison journalists and people seeking to promote press freedom in the country,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator. “The recently detained people affiliated with Press Club Belarus should be released immediately, and the charges against them dropped.”

The Press Club Belarus employees arrested on December 22 were founder Yulia Slutskaya, director Siarhei Alsheuski, program director Alla Sharko, camera operator Petr Slutski, and Siarhei Yakupau, director of the club’s media education project “Academy,” according to Belakhvostik and those reports.

Also on December 22, law enforcement officers searched Press Club Belarus’ office in Minsk and Slutskaya, Sharko, Alsheuski, and Yakupau’s apartments, and confiscated their computers and mobile phones, according to Belakhvostik.

On December 24, officers at the Department of Financial Investigations interrogated the six detainees, according to news reports, Barys Haretski, the deputy head of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, and Anton Gashinski, a lawyer representing Slutskaya and Alsheuski, who spoke with CPJ in phone interviews.

On December 31, the Investigative Committee charged Slutskaya with tax evasion in relation to her work as Press Club Belarus’ founder, and charged Alsheuski, Slutski, Sharko, and Lutskina with complicity in that crime, according Gashinski and reports.

Authorities did not charge Yakupau, who has Russian citizenship, and on December 31 deported him and imposed a 10-year ban on reentering Belarus, according to a post by Yakupau on Facebook, news reports, and Belakhvostik.

In a statement, Press Club Belarus called the arrests a “mistake,” and wrote, “we expect that after an honest, open verification of all the facts, our colleagues will be free, and the criminal case will be dropped.”

Gashinski told CPJ that the Investigative Committee granted authorities permission to hold the detainees until February 23. If convicted of tax evasion, they could each face up to seven years in prison, according to the Belarusian criminal code.

The five are being held in the No. 1 Detention Center in Minsk, according to Belakhvostik and Haretski. Yulia Slutskaya’s daughter, Aliaksandra, told CPJ in a phone interview that her mother is experiencing back pain and is kept in a small cell with eight other women.

CPJ emailed the Investigative Committee and the Department of the Financial Investigations for comment, but did not receive any responses.