Rights groups are calling for the immediate release of a Belarusian journalist and his partner who have been jailed for their alleged involvement in a crowdfunding campaign that pays legal fines for arrested pro-democracy protesters.
Supporters say that Andrei Aliaksandrau and Iryna Zlobina have committed no crime, and that treating their alleged involvement in the crowdfunding campaign – a common practice for protest movements around the world – as a criminal act is “far-fetched and manipulative” on the part of the Belarusian government.
Meanwhile, press freedom groups say that the charges against Aliaksandrau, a 42-year-old independent journalist, are part of an escalating campaign by President Aleksandr Lukashenko to lock up and discredit senior journalists, to hinder their coverage of the protest movement against him.
“We think it’s unacceptable that they’re being prosecuted for charity work,” Jeanne Cavelier, head of the eastern Europe and central Asia desk at Reporters Without Borders told VICE World News.
“The prosecution are trying to find any charges against him, even if they’re not real.”
Aliaksandrau and Zlobina alarmed their contacts when they suddenly disappeared on January the 12th, failing to respond to messages. It later transpired they were being held at a Minsk police station on charges relating to “organisation and preparation of actions that grossly violate public order, or active participation in them.”
The pair have since been remanded in custody for two months, and face up to two years in jail if found guilty.
Belarusian officials did not respond to VICE World News requests for comment about the case. But Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs Gennady Kazakevich said in a video statement Friday that the pair had been detained “on suspicion of financing protest activities.”
His ministry alleges that Aliaksandrau paid the fines of 250 protesters between August and November, using funds and lists of recipients provided by an online fundraising initiative called BY_help, that has been paying fines and other expenses for protesters demonstrating over last August’s bitterly disputed presidential election.
The project, run on Facebook and Paypal, has raised over $3 million (about £2.17 million) so far, which goes towards paying protesters’ fines, providing one-off support payments to those who were injured, or tortured in custody, and covering legal expenses.
In a statement released Monday, a group of Belarusian human rights organisations said that crowdfunding activity for the payment of protest fines “has nothing to do with financing any illegal activity and, accordingly, is not a crime.”
“We consider the prosecution of Andrei Aliaksandrau and Iryna Zlobina by the authorities to be politically motivated, as it is aimed at stopping their activities of providing assistance to the victims of political repression.”
The US Embassy in Belarus and the European Federation of Journalists have also denounced the arrests and called for the couple’s immediate release, with the embassy calling the episode “further evidence that the authorities are still inclined to manipulate the law for their own political purposes.”
Observers are also alarmed by a police raid on the offices of Aliaksandrau’s former employer, the BelaPAN news agency, on Thursday, in which officers seized reporters’ hard drives and other equipment. Aliaksandrau had worked as the deputy director at BelaPAN, the country’s oldest independent news agency, until 2018, before setting up his own online news site, journalby.com, while continuing to freelance for the agency.
“It looks like the authorities are looking for a pretext to shut down more media and … discredit them by presenting them as involved in ‘foreign influence,’ as this is how they label protests,” Maryia Sadouskaya-Komlach, a Belarusian journalist and program coordinator at Free Press Unlimited, an Amsterdam-based non-profit, told VICE World News.
Cavelier, of Reporters Without Borders, said the arrests had not only taken Aliaksandrau out of the picture, but the subsequent raid on BelaPAN had deprived the newsroom of equipment essential to its work.
While journalists had been rounded up in the mass arrests since the early days of the protests, she said, they were generally held on minor administrative charges and released within days. But in an apparent change of strategy in recent months, a growing number of high-profile media figures were being targeted and held on serious charges, with Aliaksandrau the ninth journalist to be jailed on criminal charges since November.
Last month, four staff of Press Club Belarus, an organisation that offers training and resources to independent media, were rounded up on major tax evasion charges, while a fifth was deported to Russia.
Belarus has been roiled by regular protests – and a brutal government crackdown – since the disputed presidential election in August.
Lukashenko is an autocratic strongman known as “Europe’s last dictator” who has ruled with an iron grip since 1994. He claimed victory in the August election, but opposition leaders, backed by the EU and US, accused him of presiding over mass electoral fraud to cling on to power. Most opposition leaders have since fled the country.