A Belarusian court on Thursday sentenced two journalists to 2 years in prison. They were accused of organizing anti-government protests. Two Polish-based opposition TV journalists, Belsat, were arrested in November. They broadcast a rally over the phone in support of the murdered anti-government protester Roman Bondarenka. For 27 years. Kaciaryna Bachvalava and 23-year-old Darya Chulcova were convicted.
“I will wear uniforms in prison, not broadcast,” Kaciaryna Bachvalava, a Western-unrecognized President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, said cynically. Her husband is Ihor Ilya 15min told reporters how journalists now feel and why the support and attention of the international community is so important.
– How are your family and relatives following the sentence?
– It was a huge blow to everyone. However, given the situation, we are doing well. We see that Kaciaryna herself remains optimistic and very brave. We hope that we will overcome all difficulties together. We also need to be brave – for the girls.
– Did you manage to meet, talk to your wife before the court verdict?
– No, but I managed to talk right after. We were given our first date in over three months. We also talked about the conviction, Kacia told me that it did not come as a shock to her – she did not even doubt that she would impose exactly the kind of punishment that the prosecutor had asked for. I, too, have been almost certain of this – and this is exactly the practice in political cases over the last few months – of the punishment that prosecutors are asking for. Perhaps in some ways, judges are forbidden from objecting to prosecutors. When we heard what punishment the public prosecutor was asking for, we no longer had any illusions that it would be otherwise.
When we heard what punishment the public prosecutor was asking for, we no longer had any illusions that it would be otherwise.
– Are you a journalist too? Has anything changed in your job after you arrested Kaciary?
– I did not feel any significant changes in my work – I work for the independent media, not for the state. The only thing that has changed is that now, in addition to the main work, a lot of worries about Kaciaryna have contributed. Being a relative of a political prisoner in today’s Belarus is a very big and hard job. I regularly organize various support and solidarity campaigns to support girls. It’s also the simplest of household chores – I constantly have to go to jail to prepare parcels, write letters of support, meet with lawyers and deal with various issues with them. This is a big trouble that takes a lot of time. There are days when I spend 12 or 14 hours on my feet. We don’t have children – if we had them, it would be even harder to survive.
– What is the current situation of the independent media in Belarus?
– It must be understood that the persecution and subsequent imprisonment of journalists did not start abruptly. The war has been declared to the independent media for a long time: since the second half of 2020, the Belarusian journalistic community has been under pressure and repression on a scale never seen before during the entire reign of Alexander Lukashenko. Those who felt they could no longer work in such conditions were probably all already out of the country. After all, the rest understand the logic of repression and for them the sentence of Kaciai and Dashai did not change anything. Who could have been scared already scared, and the rest to continue their work, I think from now on they will do it even more persistently and fiercely. The regime must realize that they – like Katia and Dasha – are not breaking up and are not going to give up their beliefs.
„Scanpix“ / AP nuotr./Kaciaryna Bachvalava
– Are you assisted in this fight by representatives of international organizations, human rights defenders?
– Nobody contacted me directly, but I really feel supported. A great many organizations have already circulated a demand for the immediate release of the girls. Journalists ’associations from around the world have also expressed support. I am very grateful for this solidarity and attention to this process.
– How did the Belarusian society react to the court verdict?
– There was a huge wave of outrage. Despite the fact that the Belarusians are already accustomed to political repression. This is an extraordinary event. He imprisoned journalists and did so without hiding the fact that the sentence is imposed precisely for their work – for broadcasting. It is a very cruel sentence just for such a thing. Two years’ imprisonment is too much, given that only a fine could be imposed under the same article of the Penal Code. There was certainly great outrage in society.
The international resonance contributed to all this, with the announced verdict reaching the majority of foreign media outlets. In fact, I don’t really remember when the last time any political verdict would have received both international resonance and outrage.
– Do you think this sentence can still be reviewed?
– I don’t think they’ll go to jail for two years
I don’t believe they will go to jail all two years
First of all, because I do not believe that the regime of Alexander Lukashenko will last that long. Even so, it must be understood that a political decision has been made. Consequently, if the international community does not reduce the pressure and adhere to its own, another political decision may be made to release them.
Kaciaryna Bachvalava and Darya Chulcova are just journalists. If we talk about the political opposition – Viktor Babaryk, Maria Kalesnikava or Sviatlan Cichanouskaya – the authorities will not change their minds towards them until the last. And journalists are not politicians, they do not pose a political threat to the regime. Sooner or later, the government will have to realize that it is paying an exorbitant price for harassing journalists. I think the government will flirt with the West and try to improve relations and as a result, the girls may be released.
– In your opinion, are the current sanctions already in place effective enough for the regime to review the sentencing of journalists?
– The current sanctions are certainly not effective enough. They are clearly unconvinced by the Belarussian authorities. I believe that sanctions should be tightened in the light of the ongoing terror in the country. I hope that the sentencing of journalists will push the EU to take tougher measures.
It has been heard more than once that people imprisoned for administrative detention do not receive parcels from loved ones, it is forbidden to meet them. And lets you meet your wife, hand her things?
Yes, it is easier to transfer items and parcels to prison than for those who are imprisoned for several days in administrative detention. This is a constant problem. And for those who have been sentenced to real custodial sentences in criminal cases, parcels are handed over. Four times a week, according to the rules, I can deliver parcels weighing up to a kilogram to her.
– After all this case, if released, would you stay and continue to work in Belarus or are you considering leaving?
– I cannot rule out such a possibility. However, the final decision will be made by Jekaciaryna. This is her main victim. It has haunted her, it has survived the prison and the marathon of the judiciary, which is why I think her word will be decisive in this situation and I will support any decision of her.
Photo by Sigismund Gedvila / 15min photo / Lithuanian journalists’ action in support of journalists detained in Belarus
– What does Lithuanian support mean to you?
– Any support is very important to us. And especially colleagues from a neighboring country. Our countries are historically very interconnected, so any attention and solidarity shown is a very important signal.
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