Aliaksandr Ivulin

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Authorities in the Belarusian capital of Minsk arrested journalist Aliaksandr Ivulin in June 2021. He is being held in pretrial detention and faces up to four years in prison. He was initially charged with participating in an unsanctioned protest and later for organizing or participating in gross violations of public orders.

Ivulin has worked as a soccer reporter for about 10 years at Belarus’s largest independent sports news site, 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 its website. The outlet has been blocked in Belarus since President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s disputed election victory in August 2020, Berazinsky said. 

In July 2021, a Belarus court declared Tribuna’s website and social media accounts to be “extremist” and banned them, according to news reports and a register of extremist materials maintained by the Ministry of Information of Belarus. In September, 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, as CPJ documented at the time.

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 76,000 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 multiple news reports. They then 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 under Article 24.23 of the Belarusian Code of Administrative Offenses. 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, those reports said. 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 Pisarenka to 15 days of administrative arrest and Ivulin to 30 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 under Article 342 of the Criminal Code of Belarus and placed under arrest for 72 hours, according to news reports. That article pertains to the organization of public order violations and is subject to a maximum penalty of four years in prison, according to the criminal code

On July 5, Ivulin’s detention was extended by seven days, and 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,” and was remanded in custody for two months, according to news reports. He was then transferred to Pretrial Detention Center No. 1, according to news reports and Berazinsky.

CPJ was unable to obtain information about the specific actions Ivulin is alleged to have committed, or whether the journalist has denied or admitted the charges. 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 news reports.

On September 17, 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 country’s Information Ministry. Ivulin stated he was surprised it had taken so long and saw the designation as “recognition.”

Ivulin’s detention has been repeatedly extended, according to news reports by Tribuna, and as of late 2021, he remains in Pretrial Detention Center No.1. Berazinsky said Ivulin is in good physical and psychological health, and receives many letters of support daily.

CPJ emailed the Interior Ministry and the prosecutor-general’s office for comment but did not receive any replies.