Dzmitry Navazhylau, former director of the news agency BelaPAN, has been serving a six-year sentence on charges of creating an extremist group and large-scale tax evasion since October 2022. Belarus police detained Navazhylau during raids on his apartment and BelaPAN’s offices in August 2021.
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 news reports.
BelaPAN extensively covered the mass protests that broke out across Belarus following President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s disputed election victory in August 2020. 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 drive of the editorial office’s main server, according to U.S. Congress-funded broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL).
On the morning of August 18, 2021, officers from the Belarusian Investigative Committee of searched Navazhylau’s home, BelaPAN’s editorial offices, and the homes of five of the agency’s employees.
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 Korovenkova.
Also on August 18, the Investigative Committee announced on Telegram that Navazhylau, along with 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. That charge carries a sentence of up to four years in prison, according to Article 342, Part 1, of the country’s criminal code. 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 Article 243 of the 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 RFE/RL.
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 as political prisoners.
On August 27, the Investigative Committee 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$39,200).
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.
On August 29, 2021, Navazhylau’s wife was quoted by Naviny as saying that her husband had been transferred to Pretrial Detention Facility No. 1.
On September 7, Naviny cited an informed source as saying that Navazhylau and Leushyna had been officially charged with large-scale tax evasion the previous week. The large-scale tax evasion charge replaced the “organizing or participating in gross violations of public order” charge for both Leushyna and Navazhylau, according to banned Belarusian human rights organization Viasna
BelaPAN ceased its work after the Belarusian State Security Committee declared BelaPAN an extremist group on November 1, 2021, Korovenkova told CPJ in October 2022.
After reporting on BelaPAN’s extremist designation on November 12, 2021, Naviny ceased publication immediately.
On November 18, Radio Svaboda, the Belarusian-language service of RFE/RL, reported that Navazhylau, Leushyna, and Aliaksandrau had been charged with “creating an extremist group,” punishable by up to seven years in prison under Article 361-1, Part 1, of the criminal code.
On April 4, 2022, news media reported that the prosecutor’s office had sent a case against Navazhylau, Leushyna, and Aliaksandrau to a Minsk court. Navazhylau was charged with creating an extremist group and large-scale tax evasion, according to those reports and Viasna.
On June 6, a closed-door trial of Navazhylau, Leushyna, and Aliaksandrau began in Minsk, according to BAJ’s Telegram channel.
On October 6, the court sentenced Navazhylau to six years in prison and fined him 22,400 Belarusian rubles (US$8,780), according to Viasna.
The court also handed down sentences of 14 years to Aliaksandrau and four years to Leushyna, Viasna reported.
On October 20, media reported that Navazhylau, Leushyna, and Aliaksandrau had all appealed the verdict.
Korovenkova told CPJ via messaging app that Navazhylau was feeling fine and remained in good spirits after the verdict.
Navazhylau is held at the Pretrial Detention Center No. 2 in the northeastern city of Vitebsk, according to Viasna.
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.