In late December 2020, law enforcement officers arrested independent journalist Ksenia Lutskina as part of a tax evasion investigation into Press Club Belarus, a now-shuttered professional educational and media organization that had supported her work. Five Press Club Belarus employees were also arrested that day.
Lutskina worked as a correspondent of the state broadcaster Belteleradio, known locally as BT, for 15 years until August 2020. At the broadcaster, she made historical documentaries including one on the 1986 nuclear explosion at Chernobyl, according to the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), a local advocacy and trade group that the authorities banned in 2021 and that continues to operate unofficially from inside Belarus.
Following the government crackdown on media after the August 9, 2020, contested presidential elections, Lutskina and several of her colleagues went on strike to protest the government’s actions against the press and resigned from the broadcaster, according to BAJ.
She and several colleagues planned to start an independent media outlet, to be launched on YouTube in January 2021, that Press Club Belarus supported with trainings, according to BAJ and news reports.
On December 22, police officers detained Lutskina; the same day, they searched her apartment, according to her father Aleh Lutskin, who spoke to CPJ via phone. Authorities confiscated a laptop, phone, and USB flash drives, according to news reports.
Authorities also arrested Press Club Belarus employees that day, including founder Yulia Slutskaya, director Siarhei Alsheuski, program director Alla Sharko, camera operator Petr Slutski, and Siarhei Yakupau, director of the club’s media education project, according to news reports.
On December 31, the Investigative Committee charged Slutskaya with tax evasion in relation to her work as Press Club Belarus’ founder, and charged Alsheuski, Slutski, Sharko, and Lutskina with complicity in that crime, according to Anton Gashinski, a lawyer representing Slutskaya and Alsheuski, who spoke to CPJ via phone and BAJ.
Authorities did not charge Yakupau, who has Russian citizenship, and on December 31, deported him and banned him for returning to Belarus for 10 years, according to a post by Yakupau on Facebook and BAJ.
On July 21, 2021, the Minsk City Executive Committee, the city administration headed by a presidential appointee, initiated the dissolution of Press Club Belarus, according to news reports, an announcement on the organization’s Telegram channel, and the organization’s file in a state register of legal entities.
On August 19, Slutskaya, Alsheuski, Sharko, and Slutski were released from prison in what Press Club Belarus said on Facebook was an “an act of pardon.” After her release, Slutskaya told The Current Times, a Russian-language digital network supported by U.S. Congress -funded broadcasters Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America, that she and her colleagues signed a petition asking President Aleksandr Lukashenko for a pardon and confessing to tax evasion. After that, a court found them guilty of the charge and ordered them to pay the taxes they allegedly evaded – a total of 107,000 Belarusian rubles (US$43,000), according to news reports.
Lutskina was not released because she refused to sign the petition asking for pardon, according to reports. Slutskaya added in the Current Time interview that she met Lutskina briefly at a medical office in the detention center and Lutskina told her she could not confess to something she did not do.
After her release, Slutskaya told the Belarusian service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, known locally as Radio Svaboda, that she believes Lutskina was charged under Article 357, which outlaws “conspiracy or other actions committed with the aim of seizing state power.” The charge can carry a punishment of life imprisonment or a death sentence, according to the Belarusian criminal code. CPJ was unable to determine if Lutskina was formally charged under the law, or whether she continues to face a charge of complicity in tax evasion, which carries a punishment of up to seven years in prison, according to the Belarusian criminal code.
The journalist’s father told CPJ that he did not have any information about the exact charges Lutskina now faces because the journalist’s lawyer signed a nondisclosure agreement with authorities.
Lutskina is held in pre-trial Detention Center No. 1 known as Valadarskaga, according to Viasna, a banned human rights organization that continues to operate in the country unofficially.
The journalist’s father told CPJ she shares a cell with nine other people.
The journalist’s father also told CPJ that Lutskina had a brain tumor that had been in remission but started growing in detention. He said Lutskina suffers from bad headaches and gets painkiller injections in the detention’s medical facility. He also said that the journalist had a bronchial asthma.
In November 2021, CPJ called the Ministry of Interior’s press service but the phone was not answered. CPJ also emailed a request for comment to the Belarusian National Press Center, which covers the activities of the president, the national assembly, the council of ministers, the Belarus president’s administration, and other government bodies, but did not receive any response.