On May 18, the Department for Financial Investigations searched the editorial office, the local offices, as well as the homes of journalists and editors of the most popular Belarusian Internet portal TUT.BY. The editorial offices of TUT.BY’s sub-divisions, AV.BY and RABOTA.BY, were also raided. Almost simultaneously, on the basis of a report from the Prosecutor General's Office, the Ministry of Information blocked access to the Internet resource tut.by and its scraper sites.
On the same day, the Department for Financial Investigations of the State Control Committee said that it opened a criminal case against officials of TUT.BY MEDIA LLC on the grounds of a crime under Part 2 of Article 243 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus (evasion of taxes and fees of especially large amount).
We, the undersigned organizations, consider these facts to be a continuation of the attack on freedom of speech. The authorities’ references to economic violations, which allegedly led to the outlet’s persecution, have been actively used for many years to justify repressive measures against human rights defenders, the media, and independent trade unions. In recent years, Ales Bialiatski, chairman of the Human Rights Center “Viasna”, Henadz Fiadynich, leader of the independent trade union REP, Ales Lipai, head of the Belapan news agency, and others have been prosecuted on politically motivated charges of tax evasion in Belarus.
This is not the first attempt to put pressure on the largest and most popular Belarusian information portal. In August 2018, several TUT.BY editors were prosecuted in the so-called “BelTA case”, and in early 2019, the editor-in-chief, Maryna Zolatava, was convicted in this case. At the end of 2020, TUT.BY was stripped of its credentials as a media outlet, and officials repeatedly threatened to block its activities.
We believe that these actions against the employees of the largest and most popular information resource in the country are a continuation of the purposeful policy of the authorities to limit the dissemination of uncensored information in the country. After the 2020 presidential election, dozens of socio-political and media sites were blocked in Belarus, and a number of print media were forced to stop publishing.
In the case of TUT.BY, it is known that the following persons remain in detention:
Liudmila Chekina, general director;
Maryna Zolatava, editor-in-chief;
Volha Loika, editor;
Iryna Rybalka, deputy director;
Alena Talkachova, journalist;
Anzhela Asad, chief accountant;
Maryia Novik, deputy chief accountant;
Ala Lapatko, chief engineer;
Aliaksandr Daineka, deputy general director for technical affairs;
Andrei Audzeyeu, manager;
Siarhei Pavalishau, hoster.by director;
Darya Danilava, director of Rocket Data and TAM.BY.
Under house arrest in this case are:
Yuliya Charniauskaya, widow of TUT.BY founder Yury Zisser;
Katsiaryna Tkachenka, TUT.BY lawyer;
Iryna Kastsiuchenka, former lawyer of TUT.BY.
Given these circumstances, we conclude that the real grounds for the criminal prosecution of Liudmila Chekina, Maryna Zolatava, Volha Loika, Iryna Rybalka, Alena Talkachova, Anzhela Asad, Maryia Novik, Ala Lapatko, Aliaksandr Daineka, Andrei Audzeyeu, Siarhei Pavalishau, Darya Danilava, Yuliya Charniauskaya, Katsiaryna Tkachenka and Iryna Kastsiuchenka are political motives aimed at stopping or changing the nature of their public activities for legitimate purposes as part of the TUT.BY portal in connection with the nonviolent exercise of freedom of expression and dissemination of information.
Based on this and guided by paragraphs 2.1, 3.1 a) of the Guidelines on the Definition of Political Prisoners, adopted at the III Belarusian Human Rights Forum, we, representatives of Belarusian human rights organizations, declare Liudmila Chekina, Maryna Zolatava, Volha Loika, Iryna Rybalka, Alena Talkachova, Anzhela Asad, Maryia Novik, Ala Lapatko, Aliaksandr Daineka, Andrei Audzeyeu, Siarhei Pavalishau, Darya Danilava, Yuliya Charniauskaya, Katsiaryna Tkachenka and Iryna Kastsiuchenka to be political prisoners and call to:
- immediately release Lyudmila Liudmila Chekina, Maryna Zolatava, Volha Loika, Iryna Rybalka, Alena Talkachova, Anzhela Asad, Maryia Novik, Ala Lapatko, Aliaksandr Daineka, Andrei Audzeyeu, Siarhei Pavalishau, and Darya Danilava from custody, and Yuliya Charniauskaya, Katsiaryna Tkachenka and Iryna Kastsiuchenka from house arrest;
- refrain from using the methods of criminal prosecution as an instrument of pressure on freedom of expression;
- immediately put an end to repression and release all political prisoners.
Human Rights Center "Viasna"
Belarusian Association of Journalists
Center for Legal Transformation (Lawtrend)
Belarusian Documentation Center