Aliaksandr Ivulin, a sports reporter for Belarus’s largest independent sports news site, Tribuna, has been serving a two-year prison sentence since January 2022 on charges of organizing or participating in gross violations of public order. Authorities in the Belarusian capital of Minsk arrested Ivulin in June 2021.
Ivulin has worked as a soccer reporter for about 10 years at Tribuna, which regularly features material critical of the authorities and publishes athletes’ political opinions, according to the outlet’s director Maksim Berazinsky, who spoke on the phone with CPJ in September 2021, and CPJ’s review of the Tribuna website. The outlet has been blocked in Belarus since President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s disputed election victory in August 2020.
In July 2021, a Belarus court declared Tribuna’s website and social media accounts to be “extremist” and banned them, according to the U.S. Congress-funded broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and a register of extremist materials maintained by the Ministry of Information. In September 2021, police investigating the 2020 election protests searched the homes of Berazinsky and former Tribuna correspondent Andrei Maslovski. The Central District Court in Minsk sentenced Maslovski to 15 days of administrative arrest on charges of distributing extremist materials.
Besides his work for Tribuna, Ivulin plays soccer for the Belarusian team NFK Krumkachy Minsk and runs the popular soccer-focused YouTube channel ChestnOK, which has about 82,000 subscribers. ChestnOK regularly features interviews with sports stars who supported the 2020 protests and are critical of authorities. In an interview prior to his detention, Ivulin described himself as “a guy who tells other people’s stories at the intersection of soccer and current events in our country.” Berazinsky told CPJ he believes Ivulin’s popularity on ChestnOK prompted his arrest.
On June 3, 2021, plainclothes police apprehended Ivulin close to his Minsk home and accompanied him back to his apartment, which they searched for three hours, according to news reports, Tribuna, and the Belarusian Association of Journalists, an independent advocacy and trade group that was banned in 2021 but continues to track journalist detentions from inside Belarus.
The officers took Ivulin and his roommate Yaraslau Pisarenka, a former sports commentator on state TV who quit his job during the 2020 protests and became an editor at ChestnOK, to the Frunzensky District Police Station and arrested them for participating in a mass event under Article 24.23 of the Belarusian Code of Administrative Offenses, according to news reports. Police accused Ivulin and Pisarenka of hanging a red and white flag associated with the protests in their window, thereby holding an unauthorized demonstration, according to those reports. The pair were transferred to Akrestsina Detention Facility.
At a hearing in the Frunzensky District Court the following day, Ivulin and Pisarenka admitted the flag was in their apartment, but denied that it had been hanging in their window. Ivulin asked the judge to call neighbors who had served as official police witnesses during the search as witnesses to confirm this, but the judge declined. The police officer in charge of the search told the court that police had taken the flag down before witnesses arrived “in order not to offend them,” according to these reports.
The court sentenced Ivulin to 30 days of administrative arrest, while Pisarenka was sentenced to 15 days, these reports stated. Ivulin had previously been arrested for allegedly participating in demonstrations in November 2020, which he denied, but the arrest was not connected to his journalism, Berazinsky told CPJ.
The day before his 30-day detention period expired, on July 2, Ivulin was declared a suspect for organizing or participating in gross violations of public order and placed under arrest for 72 hours, according to BAJ and a Tribuna report. That charge carries a maximum penalty of four years in prison, according to Article 342 of the Belarusian criminal code.
On July 5, Ivulin’s detention was extended by seven days, his employer reported. That same day, a group of eight leading Belarusian human rights groups and journalists’ associations declared Ivulin a political prisoner.
On July 9, Ivulin was formally charged with engaging in the “organization or preparation of actions grossly violating public order, or active participation in them.” He was then transferred to Pretrial Detention Center No. 1, according to news reports and Berazinsky.
Ivulin’s lawyer was unable to speak to CPJ, as he has signed a non-disclosure agreement with investigators, according to Berazinsky.
On August 9, a NFK Krumkachy fan was sentenced to 14 days administrative detention on minor hooliganism charges for attending a match wearing a club shirt with the number 25, Ivulin’s number, according to a Tribuna report.
On September 17, 2021, a court in Belarus declared ChestnOK’s YouTube, Telegram, and Instagram channels extremist and banned them, according to a list of extremist materials maintained by the Information Ministry. Ivulin was quoted by Tribuna as saying he was surprised it had taken so long and saw the designation as “recognition.”
On January 19, 2022, a court in Minsk sentenced Ivulin to two years of imprisonment on charges of organizing “activities blatantly aimed at disrupting social order,” according to RFE/FLand the BAJ.
Authorities claimed that Ivulin obstructed the traffic during protests on August 23 and September 27, 2020, and posted video in ChestnOK’s YouTube channel to create a “negative assessment of the current government,” according to media reports. Authorities said that Ivulin acted as an organizer of a group of citizens who participated in protests from August 2020 to March 2021
Ivulin denied the charges, according to Radio Svaboda, the Belarusian-language service of RFE/FL
On March 29, another court in Minsk upheld Ivulin’s verdict, banned human rights group Viasna reported.
On November 4, media reported that the Ministry of Interior had added Ivulin to its list of people involved in extremist activity.
Berazinsky told CPJ in late September 2022 that Ivulin did not have any health issues and regularly receives calls from his mother.
In September 2022, CPJ called the Ministry of Interior’s press service, but nobody answered the phone. CPJ emailed the Belarusian Investigative Committee but did not receive any replies.