On December 22, Aleksandra Slutskaya, an energetic young woman with piercing light blue eyes, landed in Minsk airport together with her two children and her 56-year-old mother, journalist Yuliya Slutskaya. After a vacation on a warm and sunny beach, landing in cold, grey Minsk felt horrible to Aleksandra.
But what happened next felt immeasurably worse.
At passport control, officials separated Yuliya from the rest of her family and asked everyone to go through an additional customs check. But Yuliya never emerged from customs control. Soon Aleksandra realized that the authorities had detained her mother.
Yuliya Slutskaya is a journalist with about 30 years of experience. By the time she founded the Belarusian Press Club in 2015, she was a veteran of government pressure and retaliation, and had even had to leave the country temporarily at one stage. She had grown used to it. She created the press club because she wanted to find a way to support independent journalists in Belarus. For the past five years, the club has been doing this through workshops, independent projects, and telling the stories of media workers targeted by the authorities for their work. This is almost certainly why the government is going after her.
Aleksandra and Yuliya are close, and Aleksandra jokes that when she “grows up” she wants to be just like her mom. But Aleksandra has seen no more than a glimpse of her mother from a distance for more than three months now – since the time they were separated at passport control.
From the airport, Aleksandra rushed to her parents’ home, and when she got there, her father told her the police had come with her mother, searched their home, and had just left taking Yuliya with them. She later learned that police had seized Yuliya’s laptop, phones, and bank cards.
Aleksandra had repeatedly tried to call her brother, Piotr, a press club cameraman, and the club’s financial director, Siarhei Alsheuski, as she was leaving the airport, but they had not answered nor called her back. Then she got through. “Finally, Petya [Piotr] managed to pick up the phone and whispered there was a search going on at the press club office where he was,” Aleksandra said. Siarhei was at the office, too, she later learned.
Yuliya was not the only journalist targeted. While the office was being searched, police also searched Siarhei’s home, a two-story wooden house with a picket fence outside of Minsk. According to his wife, Yuliya Alsheuskaya, the police said they came to search the ‘scene of the crime’. “I could not understand so I told them that nothing happened here. I was under a lot of stress,” she said. “I kept asking where my husband was, but they would not respond.”
That day, the authorities detained three more people who worked for or cooperated with the press club – Sergei Yakupov, Ala Sharko, and Ksenia Lutskina – and also searched their homes.
For Aleksandra Slutskaya, afraid for her mother’s safety, it was a nightmare. “For the next 24 hours we had no idea where our loved ones were, what was happening to them,” she said. “I was even told by the police to report them as missing.”
The next day, on the afternoon of December 23, the authorities told the families that all six were detained by officials from the Department of the Financial Investigations. They had kept the journalists and media workers overnight, questioned them without lawyers or without providing any clarity as to the grounds on which they were being held, and then transferred them to Okrestina detention facility.
When Yuliya Alsheuskaya received a call from an investigator saying that her husband Siarhei would be brought to the Department of Financial Investigations for questioning on December 24, she went into action. She drew a heart on a piece of paper and glued it to the window of the family’s blue car, parked it next to the department building, then went inside and waited, hoping to see him. She waited for a while until he was finally brought in by police officers. “I screamed ‘Seriozha, I am here’ and told him we all loved him. He replied he loved us too. I have not seen him since,” says Alsheuskaya. “He later wrote to me he had seen the heart on the car and felt proud.”
Within a week, the families learned that five of the detained journalists were indicted on charges of large-scale tax evasion. The sixth journalist, a Russian citizen, Sergei Yakupov, was deported to Russia and banned entry to Belarus for 10 years. The rest are in pre-trial detention.
It is hard to say anything about the tax evasion allegations. The authorities have conveniently silenced lawyers by requiring them to sign vaguely worded non-disclosure agreements barring them from sharing any information about their clients’ cases. In similar, recent cases, lawyers who spoke too much faced disbarment. Witnesses are similarly coerced into signing such statements.
Three months after their loved ones were arrested, Aleksandra and Yuliya have become good friends.
Knowing this, Siarhei addressed one of his recent letters to both his wife and Aleksandra. He asked them to imagine that he, Aleksandra’s mother and brother, and all the other detained journalists are on a business trip in a second-class train wagon. It is a trip that no one wanted to make, but they did not have a choice. And that they will come back soon.