On January 14, Belarusian human rights defenders issued a joint statement on the back of criminal charges brought against Press Club founder Yuliya Slutskaya, its directors Ala Sharko and Syarhei Alsheuski, cameraman Pyotr Slutski and Kseniya Lutskina (she is related to a media project co-run by Press Club’s Academy).
They are accused under Art. 243-2 of the Criminal Code (large-scale tax evasion) and Art. 16-6 (complicity in a crime) of the Criminal Code of Belarus.
“The arrest and detention of Yuliya Slutskaya, Ala Sharko, Syarhei Alsheuski, Pyotr Slutski, and Kseniya Lutskina are a continuation of the wave of repressions triggered by the announcement of the presidential election in early May 2020. Over the 10 months, thousands of citizens, including journalists and bloggers, NGO activists, were subjected to various forms of repression and harassment: dismissals, short terms of administrative imprisonment, fines, and politically motivated criminal charges,” the statement reads.
According to the human rights activists, the criminal prosecution is politically motivated and aimed at ‘terminating or affecting their public activities carried out for legitimate purposes as part of civil society organisations in connection with the non-violent exercise of freedom of expression and dissemination of information.’ Taking the conclusion into account, the watchdogs recognised Slutskaya, Sharko, Alsheuski, Slutski, Lutskina as political prisoners.
The eleven signatories called on the Belarusian authorities to immediately release the arrestees from custody; refrain from using criminal charges as an instrument of pressure on freedom of expression and freedom of association; immediately put an end to repression and release all political prisoners.
On December 21, the Press Club Belarus founder was met at the airport upon her arrival in Minsk and taken to the Department of Financial Investigations. Yet at the same time, the police searched the flats of Ala Sharko, Syarhei Alsheuski, Syarhei Yakupau. They also raided the office of the independent organisation, and Slutskaya’s home in Minsk. On the same day, Slutskaya, Sharko, Alsheuski, Yakupau as well as Press Club cameraman Pyotr Slutski were placed in detention. Later, Yakupau, who is not a citizen of Belarus, was released and deported to Russia.
As reported earlier, Belarusian Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makey announced limiting the activities of a number of foundations in Belarus and reviewing their humanitarian, educational and cultural programs in the wake of the third package of sanctions imposed on Belarusian officials by the European Union. It is known that Press Club Belarus launched a number of its educational programs in cooperation with the embassies of several EU member states.
Press Club, Belarusian media workers’ meeting point and a venue for lectures and discussions on the current social and political situation in Belarus, is financed, inter alia, by EU countries.