Dzmitry Navazhylau

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Belarus police detained Dzmitry Navazhylau, former director of the news agency BelaPAN, during raids on his apartment and BelaPAN’s offices on August 18, 2021. Navazhylau was initially charged with large-scale tax evasion, and later with creating an extremist group. Each charge is punishable up to seven years imprisonment. He is currently in detention awaiting trial.

Navazhylau served as director of BelaPAN, Belarus’s largest and oldest independent news agency, from September 2018 to January 2021, when he resigned from the position, according to BelaPAN-affiliated news website Naviny

BelaPAN extensively covered the mass protests that broke out across Belarus following President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s disputed election victory in August 2020, according to CPJ’s review of its output. Unlike many other independent outlets, BelaPAN’s website remained unblocked for months following the protests, the agency’s correspondent Tanya Korovenkova told CPJ. 

In January 2021, police searched BelaPAN’s Minsk headquarters in connection with a criminal investigation into former deputy director Andrei Aliaksandrau and confiscated documents and the hard disk of the editorial office’s main server, according to reports by Naviny.

On the morning of August 18, 2021, officers from the Investigative Committee of Belarus searched Navazhylau’s home, BelaPAN’s editorial offices, and the homes of five of the agency’s employees, as CPJ documented at the time. CPJ was unable to establish what objects, if any, were confiscated during the search of Nazazhylau’s home. Following the search, officers took Navazhylau to the Investigative Committee headquarters in Minsk for questioning, and then placed him under arrest for 72 hours at the Akrestsina Detention Facility in Minsk, according to reports and Korovenkova.

Also on August 18, the Investigative Committee of Belarus announced on Telegram that Navazhylau, alongside current BelaPAN director and editor Iryna Leushyna and the outlet’s accountant Katsyaryna Boeva, had been arrested on suspicion of organizing or participating in gross violations of public order under Article 342, Part 1, of the country’s criminal code, subject to four years in prison. The statement also accused unnamed BelaPAN managers of evading an unspecified amount in taxes, a charge punishable by up to 12 years in prison under the Belarusian criminal code, depending on the sum involved.

During the August 18 raids, officers confiscated BelaPAN’s editorial office server, as well as another server used by the news agency that was housed at the office of state telecommunications company Beltelecom, and searched the homes of three BelaPAN journalists, questioning two of them, according to reports. BelaPAN’s website went offline and remains down, Korovenkova told CPJ on October 1, but the agency continued to operate through Naviny and email subscriptions. Authorities blocked Naviny within Belarus in mid-April 2021, Korovenkova said.

In a statement published on August 18 by Naviny, BelaPAN described the events as “a continuation of the policy of suppressing free speech in Belarus” and demanded the release of its staff. The news agency said several of its staffers were in safety outside of Belarus and planned to continue their work.

On August 19, a day after the arrests, a group of eight major Belarusian human rights groups, legal groups, and journalists’ associations declared Leushyna, Boeva and Navazhylau political prisoners. 

On August 21, Naviny reported that as 72 hours had passed since the detentions, authorities had seven days left to hold them in custody and a further 10 days to charge them with a crime. On August 23, the journalist was granted access to a lawyer, Naviny reported, citing the lawyers, who said Navazhylau was well and in good spirits.

On August 27, 2021, the Investigative Committee of Belarus announced it had opened a criminal case in which Leushyna, Navazhylau, Aliaksandrau and unspecified “other individuals” were suspected of tax evasion. According to the Investigative Committee’s statement, audits showed that between June 2018 and January 2021, BelaPAN leadership had intentionally filed false tax returns, depriving the state budget of over 100,000 Belarusian rubles (US$39,800). The case was filed as large-scale tax evasion under Article 243 Part 2 of the criminal code, subject to a sentence of up to five years “restricted freedom” or between three and seven years in prison with a fine, which could include a ban on undertaking certain types of professional activities.

Navazhylau denied the accusation, Naviny reported his lawyer as telling BelaPAN.

Since December 2020, Belarus authorities have brought tax evasion accusations against management figures at the independent trade organization Press Club Belarus and at the country’s largest independent media outlet, TUT.by, as CPJ has documented.

On August 29, Navazhylau’s wife told Naviny that her husband had been transferred to Pretrial Detention Facility No.1. On September 7, the outlet cited an informed source as saying that Navazhylau and Leushyna had been officially charged under Article 243 Part 2 the previous week and were ordered to remain in custody until October 18.

On October 18, Naviny reported that Leushyna’s detention had been extended by two months, and that Navazhylau had also not been released, though the outlet had not received official confirmation that his detention had been extended. BelaPAN correspondent Tanya Korovenkova confirmed to CPJ by messaging app early November 2021 that this remained the case.

On November 1, the State Security Committee of Belarus declared BelaPAN an extremist group, Naviny reported. An entry in a list of extremist groups published on the Interior Ministry website, states that the alleged group’s alleged extremist activity was carried out by “a group of citizens from among the employees of the news agency,” according to this report.

After reporting this news on November 12, when the extremist designation became public, Naviny ceased publication immediately. Korovenkova confirmed to CPJ that this was a result of its parent company BelaPAN’s designation but said she was unable to comment on BelaPAN’s further plans.

On November 18, U.S. Congress-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported that Navazhylau, Leushyna and Andrei Aliaksandrau had been charged with “creating an extremist group,” punishable by up to seven years in prison under the Criminal Code. Korovenkova confirmed the charges to CPJ by messaging app.

CPJ was unable to speak to Navazhylau’s lawyer, as the lawyer signed a non-disclosure agreement with investigators, and Korovenkova said Navazhylau’s family was unwilling to comment.

As of late November 2021, Navazhylau remains in detention awaiting trial on charges of tax evasion and creating an extremist group, Korovenkova said, adding that there was no news on the public disorder charges on which the journalist was originally arrested. According to a letter he sent to colleagues late October, Navazhylau was in good health at that time, she said, but they have since had no news from him.

CPJ emailed the Ministry of Interior and Office of the Prosecutor-General of Belarus for comment but did not receive any reply.