The trial of political prisoner Katsyaryna Andreyeva has begun behind closed doors at a regional court in Gomel, Belarus. What do we know about the new case against our colleague already convicted of covering the revolution in Belarus? What do Katsya’s relatives say, and what does she write in letters from behind the bars?
She was born in 1993 in an intellectual family in Minsk. Her parents are journalists and philologists. Her grandmother – Alla Wahanau is an associate professor at the Department of Archeology of the Belarusian State University, and her grandfather – Siarhei Wahanau is a famous Belarusian journalist, publicist, and poet.
After graduating from one of the capital’s schools, Katsyaryna entered the Faculty of Hispanic Studies at Minsk State Linguistic University. In 2013, she traveled to Spain for two years in the European Commission’s volunteer program. In 2014 she returned to the country and began working as a journalist.
Katsya co-worked with Radio Svaboda, the Ukrainian project Donbas Realii, then with the Belarusian Narodnaya Volya and the Russian Novaya Gazeta. From March 2017 until her arrest in November 2020, she was a journalist of Belsat TV. Throughout this period, she reported on social protests in her homeland and abroad, bringing herself recognition among TV viewers.
With her husband Ihar Ilyash, she has published a series of high-profile journalistic investigations into the support of Alyaksandr Lukashenko’s regime and the Belarusian business for the separatist so-called ‘people’s republics of Donbas. In 2020, the couple dedicated a book, ‘Belarusian Donbas,’ to the participation of Belarusians in the war in eastern Ukraine, which was reprinted and considered extremist by the regime.
Belsat TV’s management twice (2017 and 2020) recognized her as Television Person of the Year. Also, twice (2017 and 2021), she was awarded in the Free Word competition of the independent Belarusian Association of Journalists.
Katsyaryna Andreyeva and the camera operator Darya Chultsova were arrested on November 15, 2020, for reporting the brutal acceleration by OMON of the action to commemorate Raman Bondarenka on the so-called Change Square – the courtyard between the blocks, where a young opposition supporter was beaten to death by plainclothes officers on the night of November 11-12.
The journalists reported live from the apartment on the 14th floor of the block to which the owners invited them. After the action was over, armed anti-terrorists broke the door to the apartment and took out the journalists in handcuffs. They were charged with ‘organizing and preparing activities that seriously violate public order’ (part 1 of article 342 of the Penal Code). The indictment presented in the court was absurd – the prosecutor’s office said that the journalists did not report the action but called it and directed the crowd’s actions. Their tools of the crime were to be a camera, a microphone, a tripod, smartphones, and the ‘Press’ vests. On February 18, 2021, Judge Natalla Buhuk sentenced them to 2 years in a penal colony in Minsk.
Being already behind bars, Katsya and Darya were put into the register of people prone to extremism and other destructive actions, further restricting their freedom and strengthening control by the prison administration. As ‘extremists,’ our colleagues were marked with yellow patches on their striped uniforms. The work of Katsyaryna and Darya during mass protests in Belarus in 2020 and their devotion to professional ideals became the reason for presenting them with seven prestigious awards for journalists: the PRIX Europe, the Free Media Awards, the Prize for the Freedom and Future of the Media, the Axel-Springer-Preis, the Courage in Journalism Awards, the Polish Dariusz Fikus Award and the Lithuanian ‘Hope of Freedom’ award.
Katsyaryna Andreyewa served her sentence in Penal Colony No. 4 in Gomel. She was to be released on September 5, 2020 – 1 day in pre-trial detention was counted as 1.5 days in the colony, reducing the sentence by more than two months.
However, on February 10, our colleague was taken to Gomel Remand Center without notice. For 55 days, Katsya’s family did not know in which case she was arrested and whether she had the status of an accused.
On April 7, her relatives were informed that she had been charged with ‘high treason’ (part 1 of Article 356 of the CC). She, therefore, faces 7 to 15 years in prison.
What exactly is the regime accusing the journalist, and on what basis – it is unknown as the case was classified. Katsyaryna’s lawyer had to sign an undertaking not to disclose information about the proceedings even to her family.
The only information about the case comes from Lukashenko’s special services related to propaganda channels on Telegram. Some journalist associates claim that the services want to take revenge on her precisely for exposing their ties and illegal business with separatists. They suggest that the case of Katsyaryna Andreyeva is related to her book ‘Belarusian Donbas.’ In addition, such a trial during the war in Ukraine would have propaganda value for the regime.
However, it is doubtful that the book was the sole cause of the new criminal case. If it were, investigators would also be interested in the other co-author – Ihar Ilyash, Katsya’s husband. But he is not even a witness in the case.
Since last year, she has been associated with Gomel, the city where she is serving her sentence. Why the Gomel branch of the KGB is conducting the investigation also remains a mystery. Usually, the case is handled by the authority on whose territory the crime was committed, but the journalist has never lived in Gomel, and her footage has rarely concerned the region.
It is worth noting that Article 356 of the Criminal Code is created quite broadly. In Belarus, high treason is considered not only the disclosure of state secrets, espionage, and turn to the enemy’s side during wartime, but also other renderings of assistance to a foreign state, international or foreign organization, or their representatives in carrying out activities designed to harm the national security of Belarus. Given how Lukashenko’s regime distorts the concept of national security, such a definition provides the authorities great room for abuse.
The Gomel Regional Court had the case evidence as early as April 18, and initially, Katsyaryna’s relatives predicted that the trial would begin as early as May. However, the first hearing was not scheduled until today. The case thus was in court for almost 2.5 months – even longer than the investigation took. What this delay is related to – is unknown.
The journalist’s case will be heard behind closed doors, and not even relatives will be allowed into the courtroom. However, the court must announce the verdict openly. And it is challenging to predict how long the trial will take.
It is noteworthy that the trial of TVP journalist Iryna Slaunikava is pending at the same time at the Regional Court in Gomel. The first hearing in her case was held on June 23, and on the same day, the court announced a break until July 6.
The journalist’s husband Ihar Ilyash has repeatedly stated that the new charges look absurd and are ‘Stalinist in their essence.’
– Katsya is not guilty. She has never committed anything illegal. This criminal case is a monstrous, cynical, and cruel revenge for her work as a journalist – he said on the day the regime announced the charges.
Ihar believes that the mechanism making the case under the high treason cause was the same as the first time: her legitimate professional activity was considered criminal. Her relatives, however, do not know what her professional activities could be the basis for a new criminal case.
Katsyaryna herself cannot comment on the accusation – such a letter would not pass censorship. However, her letters show that she does not lose heart and does not lose hope.
– It is as if I unlocked the highest level of this hard game. But it is not a game. And we have no right to any ‘I have no strength’ and ‘I cannot stand this anymore.’ That is why nothing else remains, except what we know how to do: we must gather all will, patience, and endurance to look ahead calmly and with dignity – this is what she wrote in one of her letters in March this year.
In the penal colony, Katsya also writes poems. Her poem ‘Over the White Field’ was recently translated into Spanish and English as part of the European Writers’ Council #FreeAllWords project.
Kaciaryna Andreyeva is one of 1,232 political prisoners in the regime of Alyaksandr Lukashenko.
Hleb Nierżyn, pj/belsat.eu