The President of the Belarusian Association of Journalists Andrei Bastunets and his Vice-presidents Aleh Aheyeu and Barys Haretski described how they were searched and what the organization is doing now.
Early in the morning of 16 February, security forces raided the homes of heads of the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ)- a registered non-governmental public organization that protects the rights of the journalists. The association’s office was also searched. Later it is revealed that other raids were conducted against human rights defenders, journalists and activists almost throughout the country. The Investigation Committee reported that the procedure was initiated “to establish the circumstances of funding for the protest activities”.
Today BAJ works under extremely difficult conditions: the office was sealed, the bank account was arrested, equipment, financial documents and a seal were seized.
The material was prepared within the framework of the Press Club Belarus project "Press under the press", which contains evidence of repressions against independent media and journalists in Belarus.
“I do not exclude that this story will follow up”
Andrei Bastunets, BAJ Chairperson
About 7 o’clock in the morning on February 16, my Vice-president and BAJ press secretary Barys Haretski called me and said that somebody was knocking on his door. Immediately thereafter, I contacted my colleagues including Aleh Aheyeu. Aleh didn’t answer, but soon after that I saw a message that they came to him as well. Everything became definitively clear. I saw through the window that three figures in black were approaching my door. Then the doorbell rang. I didn’t open it immediately as it took me a few minutes to get dressed, to get ready. I was convinced I wouldn't get home. Three men entered the apartment, presented themselves as officers of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) and asked to come with them to BAJ office for a search. The apartment was not searched. I do not exclude that this story will follow up.
We came to the office. For a few hours, they examined everything quite thoroughly, confiscating a couple of laptops, cell phones, folders with membership lists, accounting documents, a safe with a seal, a receipt for the purchase of water for 9 Belarusian rubles, as well as money — 23 Belarusian rubles. Moreover, the magazines «Abajour», which are published by BAJ, were seized. On the cover of the last issue there were published photos of the protests in white and red colours. It ended up sealing off the office.
Today we have no access to the office, no seal, no accounting documents. The bank account was arrested. In other words, everything was done to paralyse the work of the organization. But, if that was the purpose of the searches, it was not achieved. Firstly, because of the pandemic, many BAJ employees have been working remotely for a long time, and there is no need to be in the office. Secondly, we will continue our work anyway — we will defend the rights of our fellow-journalists, support independent journalism in the country, especially at this time when it is under particularly great pressure.
During the search of the office, the police officers were really concerned that there were many people in the corridor, especially journalists. The security forces called the management, clarified what to do and how to do it.
After that, I gave a quick interview to the gathered journalists. During this discussion, I suddenly learned that the search had also taken place in the apartment where my son lives. Furthermore, they came to him one of the very first: at seven in the morning, they broke down the doors in the hall and entered the apartment. Eight people, fully equipped, with automatic weapons. They laid my son on the floor, shouting at him. These images later appeared in the video materials of the MIA. As a result of the search all the equipment, that was in the apartment, was seized. This was a surprise to me, because the apartment is the property of my wife. Besides, my son has nothing to do with BAJ's activities or specifically with mine.
Unfortunately, I am convinced that pressure on the press, media organizations, the Belarusian Association of Journalists and activists will only increase. On February 16, the police raided 90 addresses of human rights defenders, journalists and unionists. At each address something was seized: computers, phones, documents.
I’m guessing that the Investigation Committee, which authorized these searches, is in a state of shock because all this seized property has to be dealt with. Now they are studying everything, looking for any kind of clue. Criminal proceedings against the persons involved in these searches are likely to follow. Now the status of all those who were searched on February 16 is not defined.
Since the Belarusian government has already crossed the Rubicon and it is not stopped by the attitude of the US, the EU and other democratic and professional communities to the events that are taking place, I predict that even tougher measures will soon follow. Then, of course, there may be a pullback, and bargaining may begin, as usual. Perhaps the situation will even begin to improve (the economic crisis can push this). However, I don’t see any positive signs of change in the near future.
Almost all of us live in the expectation that sooner or later someone will come to us. And this can happen absolutely any day. Every morning I wake up and wait for the doorbell to ring, for someone to break in again. It is impossible to build long-term plans in such conditions.
I am not going to leave the country, also I am absolutely ready for my detention. Together with our colleagues we discussed a plan of action in different situations and created an anti-crisis headquarters. On April 16, we plan to hold a Congress of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, which takes place every three years. Now we are preparing for it. In addition, we will try to continue our trips to the regions to meet with colleagues who are also under pressure from the authorities.
The Belarusian Association of Journalists was created as a reaction to violations of journalists’ rights in the country. Now, these violations have reached an unprecedented level. This is a challenge for us, and we will try to resist this pressure in every possible way, continue to fulfil our main task — to support and protect journalists who work in Belarus.
“The state unilaterally ceased acting in the public interest”
Aleh Aheyeu, BAJ Vice-Chairperson
Exactly at 7 in the morning on February 16, some men started ringing the doorbell, knocking loudly and demanding: "Open! Police!". Among the men's voices, I heard the voice of my neighbour. I called her and asked what was going on. She replied that there is a bunch of police officers with a saw near my door and they are preparing to break it down. When I heard the sound of the saw starting, I realized that it was better to let this people in. Otherwise, repairing the door would be another problem that would have to be solved.
Five people broke into the apartment very quickly, but without violence. Then two young men came in quietly as the witnesses. In the group of security officers, one was in a black uniform without identification marks with a weapon and a bulletproof vest, the other — "in civvies". Three other, who were armed with pistols, presented their documents: one is an employee of the Republican Drug Control Department (the Main Directorate for Drug Control and Combating Human Trafficking of the MIA of Belarus. — Ed.), the second-from the Republican Criminal Investigation Department (the Main Criminal Investigation Department of the MIA of Belarus. — Ed.), the third-from the Criminal Investigation Department of Minsk (Criminal Investigation Department of the Minsk City Executive Committee. — Ed.).
When I’ve read the documents, I noticed an interesting feature: the search was carried out on February 16, but the decision to conduct it was issued on February 1, and on the same day it was authorized by the Deputy Prosecutor General. That is, the preparation for such large-scale actions took them more than two weeks.
Subsequently, the Ministry of Internal Affairs reported that there were 90 similar searches throughout the country. A search warrant was almost empty on the content: the investigator of such investigative department reviewed the materials of the criminal case (the number is indicated), initiated under article 342 of the Criminal Code, and decided to conduct a search at my place of residence (the address is indicated).
Admittedly, the employees of security forces behaved quite correctly. Throughout the search, if there were any disputes, they were more concerned with the correctness of the protocol. In some cases, they did not agree with my demands, rejected some of my applications.
I have seen various searches and the distinctive feature of this one was the lack of rudeness on the part of the special services.
However, there was a full shakedown in the apartment. They moved and turned over the furniture, pulled out all the property of the house to the centre of the room. All the pockets in all the clothes, all the corners, shelves and mezzanines were checked. In total, the search lasted about five hours and without any break. At 7 in the morning, they came to me and left at 12, and this is despite the fact that I have a one-room apartment.
The search report contains 38 items of seized property. Employees of the MIA arrested all the cash that was in the apartment (they left only more than 100 rubles in my wallet). Additionally, they seized all laptops, external hard drives, flash drives, two hard drives from an old computer (I believe, it still has Windows-98). Of the office equipment, only the printer and the TV were left. They took away four flags, two of which are the national flags of Ukraine and Poland.
They didn’t give me an answer to my question about what kind of crime can be committed, for example, with the help of the national flag of Poland.
They confiscated three notebooks with handwritten notes, a large number of business cards of foreign and Belarusian lawyers, employees of international organizations — the UN, the Council of Europe, the OSCE and embassies. By the way, this seemed strange to me, but they also took the letters of political prisoners with whom I was in personal correspondence. Another very important point is that my BAJ ID cards were impounded, even old ones that have expired. The power of attorney granting me the right to represent the interests of the Belarusian Association of Journalists and the rights of its members in other organizations was also seized. Moreover, they took away several documents of a legal nature on the cases of journalists, on which I, as a lawyer, represented their interests.
But even taking into account all the searches and the fact that BAJ activity is very complicated now, we still continue to work. I want to thank everyone who immediately offered help, gave us equipment to replace the confiscated one. We are working remotely now and hope that we will soon return to normal condition.
Not only journalists but almost all residents of Belarus have lost the most important thing: the protection of a competent state body, as required by international law. The courts, the prosecutor's offices, the police and other relevant structures have deliberately stopped to fulfill their obligations to protect human rights. If the violation occurs on the part of representatives of state bodies, the state openly protects the employee of the state authority.
From my experience I can say, that over the past six months none of the legal documents have been satisfied, some have not even been considered on their merits. Just short replies are received in response to applications for the initiation of criminal proceedings (often in violation of all procedures and procedural legislation). By this they make it clear to us: we will not consider the case, you can do whatever you want with it.
And this is a very serious challenge because the state has a significant amount of responsibilities to society and to the individual in the system of relations "state — society — individual".
In our country, the state has unilaterally ceased protecting the rights of individuals and acting in the public interest.
Therefore, the number of appeals to international legal mechanisms has increased significantly. And it becomes possible to use the legal mechanisms of other states to work on crimes against humanity. There are already initiated criminal cases on such offences. They refer to the illegal acts that have been committed and are still being committed in Belarus since last August and up to now. In other words, crimes against humanity are recognized as crimes under international law, and any country can institute appropriate criminal proceedings on its territory and by its law enforcement agencies. Especially if there are citizens of this country among the victims. Such investigations under universal jurisdiction have already been initiated in Poland, Lithuania, and Ukraine.
But unfortunately, the rights of many people — especially journalists, human rights defenders, civil activists, opposition politicians - will be massively violated in Belarus in the near future, and their security is under threat.
As for BAJ activities, we plan to organize a meeting with lawyers who help journalists. We will try to discuss and develop a common guideline on how to act in these difficult conditions.
For 26 years of working with the current political system in Belarus, it is not the first time that we have encountered such a situation.
But for the first time rights are being violated so massively and so cynically.
However, the experience of previous years is paying off. Everything that happens now is rather ironic: "This has never happened before, and here it is again." The main thing is not to give up hope, do what we can and should do.
“They were stopped from using violence by the fact that there were three children in the apartment”
On the morning of February 16, we were going to school or to work. At about seven o'clock, through the window, I saw a gray Polo that was standing at the entrance and two men in black masks were next to it. At 7:20 there were some calls to the intercom, then the doorbell rang, and it became clear that all these things happened for a reason. The fears were confirmed.
But during these 10-20 minutes I managed to call my colleagues and warn them about what was happening. Aleh Aheyeu was already being searched at that time. Also, I noticed a group of security forces with an angle grinder. I ran to the door, shouted that it was not necessary to cut anything, that I have three children. Then I opened the door to them and held up my hands to show that I was unarmed so that there would be no violence.
These people went into the apartment. It was obvious that they were on edge: they had to be on the landing for a while in full view of the neighbours. At first, they wanted to show who is in charge now: they say, put your hands behind your back, tilt your head. But, probably, they were stopped by the fact that there are three children in the apartment. The situation calmed down. Entering the house, they showed a document, gave me to sign it and let the power group in camouflage with weapons go.
Only the Interior Ministry officers were left, who conducted a search at the request of the Investigation Committee. They began to slowly go through all the rooms and very carefully inspect every inch in the literal sense of the word.
They searched everything, even in the bathroom, toilet and kitchen. They looked in cans of coffee and tea, and in the refrigerator with a freezer.
They took out all the clothes from all the shelves and mezzanines, even children's clothes, and also carefully examined them, investigated all the pockets. And so they went all over the whole apartment.
The process lasted about three and a half hours. As a result, they seized mobile phones, two laptops and all the flash drives that were found in the house. The children's mobile phones were also confiscated, and this, by the way, was the most traumatic event for them. They all were terribly upset and brought to tears.
Two white-red-white flags were also impounded. By the way, the witnesses were some students who live in the BSU dormitory on Oktyabrskaya Street, 10A. Perhaps they are future investigators and prosecutors. They’ve been following my reaction very closely when the security officers took out a white-red-white flag. Probably, they expected that at this moment I would lose heart, start to say something…
Apart from that, the operatives took the books. They scrupulously checked and flipped through all the books that were on the bookshelf. They were interested in the publications of Radio Liberty, Vladimir Orlov, Vladimir Neklyaev, Pavel Sevyarynets.
To be honest, I was ready to be picked up. Even as the doorbell rang, I put on warm clothes without a belt. I didn’t exclude the possibility that I would be taken to some kind of interrogation, and then delivered to Volodarka (Pre-trial Detention Center No. 1 on Volodarsky Street, 2. –Ed.)
But at some point, these MIA employees said: "We are not detaining you. If necessary, we will call you".
And in the end, they packed up all the seized items and left.
The search was carried out according to the decision of the Investigation Committee in the context of the criminal case under Article 342 (Organization of group actions that seriously violate public order). It says I may have items and things at home that relate to a criminal case. I was given a copy of the search report with a list of the seized property.
I want to note that it is absolutely absurd to suspect BAJ of organizing any mass riots or actions. The association is registered in Belarus and all our activities are open to the public. We always provide all reports to different state bodies. In addition, we always emphasize our neutrality and apolitical attitude. Our job is to protect journalists. This is spelled out in our Charter, which is registered with the Ministry of Justice, and we clearly fulfil the duties mentioned there.
Since the office is sealed, equipment, the safe with the seal, and documents have been seized, our work is now considerably complicated. Of course, our colleagues quickly helped us with the equipment, but we also try to take it minimally: new searches and new seizures are not excluded. And of course, I'm worried about the flowers that are in the closed office. Who will water them?
To all colleagues today I recommend the following: be as open as possible and do not engage in any confrontation with the security forces. Did they come to you with a search? All right, well, take these things. Try to prepare for this both physically and mentally.
If there are concerns that someone may come to you, conduct a "training search" on your own.
Look at your accommodation through the eyes of operatives, check what you have and where it is, whether it’s anything of value, whether you are ready to part with it.
As the lists of BAJ members, as well as the applications to join the association, were taken from the office during the search, there is a possibility that someone will be called for interviews. However, you should not be afraid of this, because the activities of BAJ and membership in the association are absolutely legal.
I also recommend you to take care in advance of who you call and what number to call, including a lawyer. If you don’t have a signed agreement with an advocate, you can at least agree with a lawyer you know, that if you need him, he will enter into the case. And then give his contact to your family.
But my most important recommendation is to try to stay calm. We're not doing anything illegal. Sooner or later, the law will prevail.