Story of imprisoned Belsat journalists Katsyaryna Andreyeva and Darya Chultsova

Story of imprisoned Belsat journalists Katsyaryna Andreyeva and Darya Chultsova

Who is Katsyaryna Andreyeva

Katsyaryna Andreyeva. Photo from personal archive

Katsyaryna was born in 1993 into a family of several generations of Minsk intellectuals. Her parents are philologists. Grandmother Ala Vahanava is an associate professor of the Department of Archeology of the Belarusian State University. Her grandfather Syarhei Vahanau is a famous Belarusian journalist, publicist and poet, Belsat reports.

After Katsya graduated from gymnasium №23 in Minsk, she entered the Spanish faculty of MSLU. In 2013 she enrolled in a volunteer program of the European Commission to Spain, where she spent two years.

But at the end of 2014 she returned to her homeland. On the way, she wrote her first journalistic article – “Polonaise at the station” – which will be sent to the contest “People’s Journalist”. This text won in the “Sincerity and Style” nomination.

“As I am sure, a large number of young Belarusians have a dream. My dream is very simple, but it is also complicated – a happy life in my homeland,” Katsyaryna wrote in her first article.

“Since then, Katsyaryna has devoted herself entirely to journalism,” says Katsya’s grandfather Syarhei Vahanau.

Katsya has collaborated with Radio Svaboda and the Ukrainian project “Donbas. Realities”. Her work has been published in Narodnaya Volya and the Russian Novaya Gazeta. Since March 2017, she has been a correspondent for Belsat. Twice (in 2017 and 2020) she was recognised Belsat’s “Television Person of the Year”. She was also a laureate of the BAJ “Free Speech” contest.

In December 2016, Katsyaryna married investigative journalist Ihar Ilyash.

Ihar Ilyash and Katsyaryna Andreyeva. Photo from family archive

“Katsya and I met for the first time in Freedom Square, where we came to cover the protest during the 2015 election campaign,” Ihar recalls. “I thought: what a beauty, I should definitely invite her to a cafe after the event”! I didn’t do it that day, because Katsya left earlier, and I didn’t even have time to get her phone number. But a week later we met again in Freedom Square, at a new protest. Now I did not let her out of sight, and after the action we went to a cafe.

The funny thing is that this meeting of ours ended with us almost getting detained. It was the day before the presidential election, and next to the cafe was a gymnasium, where the polling station was located, where early voting took place. We talked for a long time about the election, and then Katsya offered to visit this site before closing to just see what it all looked like. But members of the commission, suddenly seeing two journalists in the evening, got scared and called the police. Fortunately, the police just checked our IDs and released us. That evening I realised that I fell in love with Katsya.”

In co-authorship with Ihar Ilyash, Katysaryna prepared a number of high-profile journalistic investigations, and in 2020 they published a documentary book “Belarusian Donbas” about the role of Belarusians in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. Over the past year, the book had two editions.

Who is Darya Chultsova

Darya Chultsova. Photo from family archive

Darya was born in 1997 in Shklou. She graduated from the Faculty of History and Philology of Mahiliou State University where her major was Journalism.

She started her journalistic career not so long ago. At first she tried herself in reportage, but later she was more attracted to working with camera. After the 2020 elections, Dasha moved to work in Minsk.

“My daughter is a huge supported of truth and does not tolerate injustice. When we talked about work, Dasha said she wanted to show people the truth. I think she decided to go into journalism in high school because she put a lot of effort in her studies. She unveiled her choice at graduation. Me, my sister and Dasha’s aunt were against that, we tried to put her mind off it. We are regular workers, nobody was interested in politics and journalism. But Dasha said unequivocally: “If not in journalism, then nowhere!” her mother Natallya said.

Darya Chultsova and her mother Natallya. Photo from the family archive

In the last few weeks before her arrest, Darya Chultsova worked with Katsyaryna Andreyeva during Sunday’s protests in Minsk.

“I will definitely not forget our conversation before the detention,” says Krystsina, Darya’s friend. “I asked if she was afraid of being arrested?” That answer got stuck in my memory:

“It’s hard not to be afraid of it, you morally prepare yourself for it every time, but you still take the camera in your hands and go shoot. Even male cameramen simply refuse to report because they were beaten without remorse! But who then will cover it? So you go there for better or for worse, hoping that you will be spared because you are a girl”.

But apparently it was not to happen at that time. That Sunday Dasha once again went to the photo assignment to let people see the truth.”

How journalists got behind bars

Square of Change turns into memorial. Raman Bandarenka died night before in hospital after being brutally detained and beaten by unknown people. Minsk, Belarus. November 13, 2020. Photo: TK / Belsat

Katsyaryna Andreyeva and Darya Chultsova were detained on November 15 for broadcasting live a violent dispersal of a rally in memory of Raman Bandarenka and the destruction of a national memorial in the Square by security forces.

They were broadcsting live from the apartment on the 14th floor of the house on Smarhouski Trakt Street, where they had been invited by the hosts. After the rally, armed riot police broke the door to the apartment and detained the girls.

The security officers treated the journalists in a very rude manner. “When I was being detained by special forces, they shouted:” You will go to prison for 7 years, you will sew uniform for police officers.” The deputy chief of the police department called her “biddy” and “kiddo” while pushing her in the back on the stairs. The cops shouted: “You will no longer broadcast live! Never!” Katsyaryna wrote about her detention in one of the letters.

Detentions in Square of Change. Minsk, Belarus. November 15, 2020. Photo: AB / Vot Tak TV / Belsat

At the police station Katsyaryna felt sick, she felt a sharp pain in her head, she vomited, and then she collapsed. An ambulance took her to the 9th hospital. They did not find anything serious, but said she needed bed rest, complete calm and a mandatory visit to a neurologist the next day. But in the morning of November 16 she was taken to the police station and then – to the pre-trial detention centre.

Darya and Katsyaryna were first put in the same cell in Akrestsin Street jail, the conditions there were terrible. The cell was designed for four people, but 11 people kept there. The detainees had to sleep close to each other. Bed linen was not provided, they had to sleep on dusty and dirty mattresses. They were not allowed to sit or lie down during the day by guards who also threatened to take away the mattresses. The overcrowded cell was very stuffy, but the “window” was left closed on purpose.

Detention centre on Akrestsin Street. December 2020. Photo: TC / Belsat

“We asked if they knew that we had a torture chamber there, not a cell for the offenders detained on administrative cases. They smiled, saying that was the intention and that they were having fun. That’s right… They also used a lot of swear words,” Katsya and Dasha’s cell neighbour told us later.

Charges

Belsat TV journalist Katsyaryna Andreyeva. Photo: belsat.eu

First, Katsya and Dasha had administrative reports filed against them under Article 23.34 and 23.4 of the Administrative Code. They were accused of allegedly participating in an unauthorized protest and disobeying the police. On November 17, a Minsk court sentenced them to 7 days of administrative arrest for their professional activities.

The court ruling said that Katsyaryna and Darya had committed an offense, but their actions did not constitute a crime. However, contrary to the court’s findings, a criminal case was launched against Belsat journalists right at that time. On November 20, they were charged under Part 1 of Article 342 of the Criminal Code (organisation and preparation of actions that grossly violate public order). The girls were kept in custody and transferred to Zhodzina prison and kept in separate cells.

Darya Chultsova. Photo from personal archive

Katsya and Dasha were accused of taking an active part and even supervising “group actions that grossly violate public order,” which led to disruption of public transport. The investigation claimed that the live broadcast of Katsyaryna and Darya allegedly led to the suspension of 13 bus routes, three trolleybus routes and three tram routes (although most of these routes have nothing to do with the Square of Changes). The damage to Minsktrans was estimated at 11,562 Belarusian rubles and 14 kopecks.

Katsyaryna and Darya pleaded not guilty. In addition, Katsya refused to testify during the investigation.

Who contributed to persecution of journalists

Employees of GUBOPiK patrolling the stairwells in the houses near the Square of Change. Minsk, Belarus. November 15, 2020. Photo: AB / Belsat / Vot Tak TV

It was the the GUBOPiK fighters who detained Katsyaryna’s husband Ihar Ilyash in November (he was imprisoned for 15 days) and seized his gear, which was later labelled as material evidence in the case of Katsya and Dasha.

The criminal prosecution of journalists was accompanied by information attacks by odious propagandists. In November, columnist Andrey Mukavozchyk posted a slander story against Katsyaryna Andreyeva and her family on the website of state-run media outlet SB-Belarus Today.

Katsyaryna Andreyeva. Photo from personal archive

In January, propagandist Ryhor Azaronak accused the girl on STB of allegedly supervising “mass riots”, calling her a “pure criminal”, a “foreign agent” used to be “dealt” with by military counter-intelligence during the war. Katsyaryna responded to the insults from the propagandist with a short answer, which she conveyed through a lawyer:

“I feel pity for the poor boy who made the wrong choice. I can only sympathise with him. Because sooner or later I will be released from prison, and he will remain with this burden for life. My condolences to Hrysha Azaronak,” she wrote in her response to the propagandist.

How girls take imprisonment

Katsyaryna and Darya have been in prison for almost three months now, but they are in high spirits and are not losing their optimism.

“Dasha is holding very well mentally, because her letters show her fighting spirit… She wrote that she wanted me to be proud of her. Which I am, although I sometimes blast her for getting there… I just love her and want her to be well. She is our warrior. Dasha is the winner,” Darya’s mother Natallya said in an interview to Belsat.

The prison did not make Dasha doubt her life choice. In letters to her mother, the girl wrote that if she had known what her journalistic work would lead to, she would still have chosen this path.

Darya is optimistic about the future. “2021 is my year. After all, I was born in the year of the bull. And I, like him, am very persistent,” she wrote in a letter to a colleague. The girl said she felt fine, she was not sick and was longing for work.

Katsyaryna Andreyeva. Photo from personal archive

Katsyaryna wrote in her letters that she was not afraid of the future and did not let resentment and anger into her soul:

“The strangest thing is that I do not feel anger, resentment, thirst for revenge against someone who decided to do so with us, with me. What do I feel? I feel pity for those who carry out orders. It is a lazy irritation that the buzzing of a fly can cause. Poor, poor little people… They will have to live with all this, and my life has not been spoiled, no matter how much they want it to be”.

Right before the trial, Katsyaryna sent a statement to the press from the pre-trial detention center, saying that the prison did not break her and did not force her to abandon her principles:

“I spent almost three months behind bars. According to their (intelligence services – belsat.eu) plan, the imprisonment was to break me and make me doubt the correctness of the chosen path. However, nothing like that happened. This time spent in the pre-trial detention center only made me stronger inside”.

She added that she will be happy regardless of the verdict, because her conscience is clear, “and it is easy and pleasant to tell the truth.”

Resonance and solidarity

Darya Chultsova.

Katsyaryna and Darya were recognised as political prisoners four days after they were charged. And in December, the girls won the “Journalist of the Year” award from the human rights community of Belarus. In a special statement, the British human rights organisation ARTICLE 19 emphasised that the accusations made against the journalists are contrary to international human rights standards, and their persecution is a violation of the right to freedom of expression.

The Belarusian Association of Journalists, the PEN Center of Belarus, the Association of Polish Journalists, the National Union of Journalists of Ukraine and the European Federation of Journalists, the Russian non-governmental organisations Svabodnae Slova and PEN-Moscow spoke in defence of the two journalists. The journalists received the “Hope of Freedom” prize from the Union of Journalists of Lithuania.

Katsyaryna Andreyeva. Photo from personal archive

More than 1,500 people from Belarus, Russia, Ukraine and other countries have signed a petition for the release of Katsyaryna Andreyeva, including famous writers and literary figures. Solidarity also took concrete legal forms. BAJ chairman Andrey Bastunets, Narodnaya Volya editor-in-chief Iosif Syaredzich, Novy Chas editor-in-chief Aksana Kolb and journalist Valery Kalinouski sent a petition to the Belarusian Investigative Committee in December demanding the girls to be released. However, investigators refused to change the measure of restraint for Dasha and Katsya.

Russian journalist Vladimir Pozner, journalist and public figure Nikolai Svanidze, TV presenter and politician Ksenia Sobchak have demanded that Alyaksandr Lukashenka released Darya and Katsyaryna.

“Alyaksandr Ryhoravich, journalists must not be kept in a paddy wagon or prison. Especially if these journalists are women. By persecuting them and imprisoning them, you are not showing strength, but weakness,” Nikolai Svanidze wrote.

As part of the international project of solidarity with political prisoners, the world-famous German philosopher Jürgen Habermas became the “godfather” of Katsyaryna Andreyeva. Darya Chultsova was taken under wing by the deputy of the Lithuanian Seimas Dalia Asanavičiūtė.

Darya Chultsova. Photos from social networks

In total, Katsya and Dasha have received hundreds of letters during their imprisonment, including from strangers who wanted to express solidarity with the journalists. Letters also come from abroad: the UK, Germany, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Brazil, Sweden and other countries. The girls say that such solidarity helps them a lot in prison.

“Incredible support from the outside filled us with joy every day,” Katsyaryna write in an open address.

***

The trial over Katsyaryna Andreyeva and Darya Chultsova will start at 10 am on February 9. The case will be heard by judge Natallya Buhuk. The journalists are facing up to three years in prison.

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