On Tuesday, the trial of Belsat TV journalist Katsyaryna Andreyeva and camerawoman Darya Chultsova kicked off in Frunzenski district court of Minsk.
Their case is considered by judge Natallya Buhuk. The court building is under increased surveillance and protection.
Shortly before the start, about 60 people gathered in the lobby. The defendants’ relatives and representatives of state-run media (BelTA, ONT) were the first to to enter the courtroom. A bit later, reporters of accredited media outlets (TASS, Sputnik, KP, Onliner, Nasha Niva, Narodnaya Volya) were let in; dozens of people, including Belsat TV contributors, were not allowed to attend the hearing. They are waiting at the door.
Half the seats is reported to be empty. Some journalists working for non-state media say the guards barred them from being present, referring to the coronavirus threat. However, there are many plainclothes policemen in the courtroom.
“I did not manage to have a word with Katsyaryna, hardly had I made an attempt to talk by signs when I was immediately pushed away by the guards. All we could do was exchanging glances. Katsya looks really good. I have not seen her for almost three months, but she keeps smiling, her eyes are burning. At a certain moment, Dasha saw her mother and tears gushed into her eyes. Then Katsya gave her a hug, and Dasha started smiling again. They were showing a sign of victory and smiling. Fortunately, the girls are in good spirits, they are ready to fight, they are not broken,” Ihar Ilyash, an investigative journalist and Katsyaryna Andreyeva’s husband, told Belsat TV.
A motion for changing the measure of restraint was made, but the judge dismissed it.
At about 11.40 (local time), a young man who asked to make public the prosecutor’s name was taken out of the courtroom by a policeman in civvies. According to him, there are vacant seats there since only 15-20 people are inside.
From time to time, Security Department officers are seen in the lobby. They ask the policemen guarding the courtroom door if everything is in order.
12.02 The first witness is an elderly man living in the residential estate in which Katsyaryna and Darya were covering the peaceful protest in mid November. He says he was standing at the window for three hours. He called the police because, in his opinion, ‘someone was coordinating the protesters from a car parked near the block of flats’. Notably, the witness did not see the two journalists there.
12.10 The second witness says was a guest of the owners of the apartment from which the journalists were livestreaming. According to her, the people (allegedly security officers) who entered the apartment did not introduce themselves. Shortly before, they had been knocking on the door for about 20 minutes, but the host said he would not open. Everyone was frightened: the owners, their guest and children, the journalists. The witness notes that she did not hear any instructions or calls for protesting from the girls.
12.56 The third witness is Liliya Maroz, a co-owner of the apartment. She says the girls phoned her husband and asked whether they could stream from their place. The couple did not know that they were Belsat TV journalists, although they saw them wearing PRESS vests. The witness heard the defendants making only work-related remarks, no calls for further protesting were voiced.
14.10 The hearing reopens after an one-hour break. Dzmitry Maroz, a co-owner of the apartment, says that a man got in touch with him and asked if the journalists could use their home as a spot for livestreaming the protests. The two girls arrived at about 12 pm; they had vests with the inscription PRESS. The witness says he does not remember what they said when being on air and what issues they were discussing on that day.
14.45 Dzmitry Maroz admits that he did not let the police in the apartment when requested because he did not understand that those knocking on his door were persons in authority. The search conducted by seven or eight officers lasted for about three hours. They confiscated digital equipment, laptops, mobile phones, a camera and pendrives. A day later, a defense lawyer of one of the journalists contacted Mr Maroz, and he agreed to be a witness in the administrative proceedings initiated against them.
“I did not observe the defendants’ committing any unlawful acts, otherwise I would have asked them to leave my place,” Dzmitry Maroz stressed.
15.00 Another witness is Raman Pranovich, who is in charge of traffic routing at the city transportation agency Minsktrans. He says that a traffic delay on Pushkinskaya and Charvyakou streets cost the agency more than 11,000 rubles. He claims that the Belarusian police did not block the traffic there on November 15; in his view, it was the demonstrators who were behind the disruption.
15.30 The prosecutor adds that the defendants committed the crime by ‘voicing calls from Telegram channels and calls to come by private cars and block the movement of police vehicles’. According to her, Katsyaryna Andreyeva also gave a positive assessment of protesting during the livestream; in doing so, she instigated people to ‘illegal actions’, the prosecotor believes.
16.00 The prosecutor puts questions to Andreyeva’s husband, journalist Ihar Ilyash, about their marriage, jobs, monthly income. The prosecutor also wonders if Ilyash was aware of his wife’s ‘committing unlawful acts’. Ihar answers that shortly before the arrest, his wife was performing her journalistic duties, which was witnessed by tens of thousands of viewers online.
16.15 Darya Chultsova refuses to testify. The judge says that the testimony that she gave earlier will be considered during the trial. In turn, Darya’s case file reads: “I did not call on anyone [to take part in protests], I did not coordinate anyone, I did not force anyone into taking any action.’
“My consent to cover Minsktrans’ losses is not equal to my admitting guilt,” Darya stresses.
16.35 Katsyaryna Andreyeva says that the arrest and trial are nothing but the security services’ revenge for their journalistic activity.
According to her, they were arrested by armed riot policemen. In the car, the officers ‘promised’ that after being locked up for 10 years, she would be sewing police uniforms in the penal colony. One of them threatened the detained journalists that they would be imprisoned for 7 years for ‘extremism’.
Katsyaryna states that that she did not control or coordinate people during the livestream. The reporter and the camerawoman could not do so even if they wanted because the Internet was switched off in the Belarusian capital city on that day, many people were stripped of the opportunity to watch the stream, the defendant says.
16.45 Katsyaryna‘s speech was greeted with applause.
16.53 Katsyaryna refuses to answer a numnber of questions from the prosecutor, including those about the ‘procedure of livestreaming’.
17.02 The judge continues who asks Katsyaryna whether she has minor children, chronic diseases, etc. Katsyaryna says she would not like to discuss her health issues in public. There are new witnesses in the courtroom.
17.06 Darya and Katsyaryna do not acknowledge all the claims by Minsktrans.
17.15 The judge adjourns the session until February, 16.
Katsyaryna Andreyeva and Darya Chultsova were arrested on November 15 for broadcasting live a violent dispersal of a rally in memory of murdered protester Raman Bandarenka and the destruction of a national memorial in the so called Square of Change by security forces. They were livestreaming from the apartment on the 14th floor of the house on Smarhouski Trakt Street in Minsk, where they had been invited by the hosts. After the rally, armed riot police broke the door to the apartment and detained the girls.
At first, Katsya and Dasha had administrative reports filed against them under Article 23.34 and 23.4 of the Administrative Code. They were accused of allegedly participating in an unauthorised protest and disobeying the police. On November 17, a Minsk court sentenced them to 7 days of administrative arrest for their professional activities. The court ruling said that Katsyaryna and Darya had committed an offense, but their actions did not constitute a crime.
However, contrary to the court’s findings, a criminal case was launched against Belsat journalists right at that time. On November 20, they were charged under Part 1 of Article 342 of the Criminal Code (organisation and preparation of actions that grossly violate public order). The girls were kept in custody and transferred to Zhodzina prison and kept in separate cells. The two media workers are facing up to three years in jail.
The investigation also claims that the livestream of the journalists resulted in the stoppage of 13 buses, 3 trolleybuses and 3 streetcar routes as well as the damage to the city transport agency Minsktrans (around 11,562 rubles).
On November 24, Belarusian human rights watchdogs recognised Katsyaryna Andreyeva and Darya Chultsova as political prisoners.