Iryna Leushyna

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Police in Minsk detained Iryna Leushyna, director and chief editor of the Belarusian news agency BelaPAN, during raids on her apartment and BelaPAN’s offices on August 18, 2021. Leushyna was initially charged with large-scale tax evasion, and later was charged with creating an extremist group. Each charge is punishable by up to seven years in prison. She remains in detention awaiting trial.

Leushyna worked as a journalist at BelaPAN, Belarus’s largest and oldest independent news agency, since its foundation in 1991, and became 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, according to a CPJ review of its output. 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 disk of the editorial office’s main server, according to reports by Naviny, a news website affiliated with BelaPAN. 

On the morning of August 18, 2021, officers from the Investigative Committee of Belarus searched Leushyna’s and five of her BelaPAN colleagues’ homes, as CPJ documented at the time. Anya Leushyna said officers confiscated her mother’s laptop and cell phone during the search. Then, officers took Leushyna to BelaPAN’s editorial office, where they conducted a search and 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.

After the search, Leushyna and two reporters were taken to Investigative Committee headquarters for questioning, according to reports.

Following questioning, Leushyna was ordered to be held for 72 hours at the Akrestsina Detention Facility in Minsk, her daughter Anya told BelaPAN, adding that Leushyna had not been given access to a lawyer.

In the afternoon of August 18, the Investigative Committee of Belarus 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 under Article 342, Part 1, of the country’s criminal code, subject to up 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.

The agency’s website went offline and remains closed since then, Korovenkova told CPJ on October 1, but the agency has continued to operate through Naviny and email subscriptions.

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 agency said several of its staffers were in safety outside of Belarus and planned to continue the agency’s work.

The following day, 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 following Leushyna, Navazhylau, and Boeva’s arrest, authorities had seven days left to hold them in custody and a further 10 to charge them with a crime. Leushyna had been granted access to a lawyer, the outlet stated, citing the lawyer as saying the journalist remained in good spirits.

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$39,800). 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 and a potential ban on undertaking certain types of professional activities.

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 at the country’s largest independent media outlet, TUT.by, as CPJ has documented.

On August 28, Leushyna was transferred to Pretrial Detention Facility No.1 in Minsk, her daughter Anya Leushyna told CPJ. The Investigative Committee officially charged Leushyna with tax evasion on August 30 and ordered her to remain in custody until October 18. On October 18, Leushyna’s detention was extended for a further two months, Anya Leushyna said.

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 designation became public, Naviny ceased publication immediately. Korovenkova confirmed to CPJ that this was a result of its parent company BelaPAN’s designation as extremist 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 Leushyna, Navazhylau 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.

As of late November 2021, Leushyna remains at Pretrial Detention Center No. 1, also known as Volodarskaga, awaiting trial on charges of tax evasion and creating an extremist group, her daughter told CPJ, adding that she remains a suspect in the public order case. The investigations have not progressed, she said, because Leushyna has refused to give testimony. Leushyna’s health and mood remained good the last time she was in contact with her shortly before the announcement of new charges, Anya Leushyna said.

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