On May 30, the Homel Regional Court announced its verdict for journalist, historian, and local history expert Yauhen Merkis who received 4 years of imprisonment in a enhanced regime colony. Judge Aliaksei Khlyshchankou found Merkis guilty under Part 1 and Part 2 of Article 361-4 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus ("Assistance to extremist activity"), as well as under Part 3 of Article 361-1 of the Criminal Code ("Participation in extremist formation").
The trial was held behind closed doors. Only the announcement of the verdict was made public. Seven court sessions were held. According to human rights activists and friends of the journalist, there was talk of transferring photo information on the presence and movement of Russian military equipment in the region to online resources classified as "extremist".
It is the ninth month of Yauhen Merkis' imprisonment in a pre-trial detention center. One day in a pre-trial detention center is counted by the court as one and a half days in a colony. The security forces detained him on September 13, 2022. A search was conducted then at the journalist's place of residence, the information carriers were seized. Searches took place at his father's home, as well as at friends' homes.
The human rights community has recognized Yauhen Merkis as a political prisoner.
In March of this year, after the end of the investigation, Yauhen had a short-term meeting with his family. He did not complain about his health, although he had colds. In December, he spent four days in a punishment cell. He was punished with tougher conditions of detention for allegedly not shaving.
Even before his arrest, Yauhen Merkis abandoned his journalistic activities due to the fact that a number of independent media outlets he collaborated with were classified by the authorities as "extremist formations".
Merkis is a historian by education; he graduated from the History Department of the Belarusian State University. He focused on local history, received a certificate of a tour guide, including for working with foreigners in German. The journalist speaks Belarusian well. He also learned English. Merkis also tried to learn French in the pre-trial detention center, but, as far as we know, he had difficulties with getting textbooks.
Yauhen began to popularize history, language, and culture of his native land and ethnographic travels as a student. Later he founded a website Local History of Homel and Homel region, headed the Homel youth public local history association Talaka, and he was also the regional coordinator of a social and cultural campaign Budzma!.
When protests of the so-called "social parasites" took place in Homel and other cities of Belarus in 2017, Merkis was streaming from mass actions and became one of the most recognizable regional leading journalists.
Prior to his detention, Yauhen characterized himself as follows: "I'm an Orthodox Christian, a supporter of Western values and patriarchy in the family, I love punk, rock, and retro music of the 1950s–1970s, the works of "true poets" — Anatoly Sys and Vasyl Stus. I love Homel. I value authenticity in people. But the idea is the main and primary thing. I'm a depressive optimist. I admire people like the head of Tesla Motors, Elon Musk, who go far with their ideas and activities, who change the world".