Iryna Leushyna, director and chief editor of the Belarusian news agency BelaPAN, has been serving a four-year sentence on charges of creating an extremist group since October 2022. Police in Minsk detained Leushyna during raids on her apartment and BelaPAN’s offices in August 2021.
Leushyna has worked as a journalist at BelaPAN, Belarus’s largest and oldest independent news agency, since its foundation in 1991, eventually becoming its editor-in-chief, her daughter Anya told CPJ in a telephone interview. In January 2021, she became the agency’s director.
BelaPAN extensively covered the mass protests that broke out across Belarus following President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s disputed election victory in August 2020. Unlike 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 the news agency’s Minsk headquarters in connection with a criminal investigation into former BelaPAN 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 searched Leushyna’s and five of her BelaPAN colleagues’ homes. Anya Leushyna said officers confiscated her mother’s laptop and cell phone during the search. Officers took Leushyna to BelaPAN’s editorial office, where they confiscated BelaPAN’s editorial office server and another server used by the news agency that was housed at the office of state telecommunications company Beltelecom.
Following questioning at Investigative Committee headquarters, Leushyna was ordered to be held for 72 hours at the Akrestsina Detention Facility in Minsk, her daughter was quoted as saying to BelaPAN, adding that Leushyna had not been given access to a lawyer.
In the afternoon of August 18, the Investigative Committee announced on Telegram that Leushyna, former BelaPAN director Dzmitry Navazhylau, and the agency’s accountant Katsyaryna Boeva had been arrested on suspicion of organizing or participating in gross violations of public order, which carries a sentence of up to four years in prison, according to Article 342, Part 1, of the country’s criminal code.
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 of Belarus announced that 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).
Leushyna’s lawyer told BelaPAN that she denied the accusation, Naviny reported.
Since December 2020, Belarus authorities have brought tax evasion accusations against management figures at the independent trade organization Press Club Belarus and the country’s largest independent media outlet, TUT.by.
On August 28, Leushyna was transferred to Pretrial Detention Facility No. 1 in Minsk, her daughter told CPJ.
On September 7, Naviny cited an informed source as saying that Leushyna and Navazhylau had been officially charged with large-scale tax evasion the previous week. The 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 the U.S. Congress-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, reported that Leushyna, Navazhylau, and Andrei 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 June 6, 2022, a closed-door trial of Leushyna, Navazhylau, and Aliaksandrau began in Minsk, according to BAJ’s Telegram channel.
On October 6, the court sentenced Leushyna to four years in prison, according to Viasna. The court also handed down sentences of 14 years to Aliaksandrau and six years to Navazhylau, the report said.
On October 20, media reported that Leushyna, Aliaksandrau, and Navazhylau had all appealed the verdict.
Korovenkova told CPJ via messaging app that Leushyna was feeling fine and remained in good spirits after the verdict.
Leushyna is held at the Pretrial Detention Center No. 3 in the southeastern city of Homel, 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.