Maria Elyashevich, journalist at the Komsomolskaya Pravda in Belarus newspaper,

Andrei Shavlyugo, correspondent at the BelaPAN news agency
Maria Elyashevich, journalist at the Komsomolskaya Pravda in Belarus newspaper,

Andrei Shavlyugo, correspondent at the BelaPAN news agency
Maria Elyashevich and Andrei Shavlyugo were accused of participating in student protests, as well as coordinating them. On that day – September 1, 2020 – six journalists were detained, apparently for a document check, while they were covering what was happening on the streets. The verification of documents ended with them before the courts. Many mass media called these trials "epic".

Andrei and Maria ended up among those half dozen detainees. They told what happened next.
Maria Elyashevich: Every year, on September 1, I go to schools and write stories about the celebratory assemblies there [marking the start of the academic year]. To be honest, I was sick and tired of writing the same thing every year. I was tired – and then I got something new to write about. September 1, 2020 turned out to be a very unusual day for me. The students took to the streets, and we went to work. At about 5 p.m., the riot police came up to me and my colleagues and asked us in a very polite and kind manner to go to the bus, ostensibly to check our accreditation. They added that there would be no violence. Having no second thoughts, we went to the bus. I believed that our accreditation would be checked, and we would be released.

Andrei Shavlyugo: When we were in the bus, we were told that it was impossible to check the accreditation on the spot, and we had to go to the police department. I remembered how 50 journalists had been detained a week earlier and released within three hours. Therefore, I was not upset, but simply made up my mind to put up with three uncomfortable hours.

Maria Elyashevich: I was also only worried about having no time to submit the text to the deadline. We were met by polite officers who kept repeating that everything was going to be fine, "We are now calling the department to check your accreditation." We tried to explain that, for example, Komsomolskaya Pravda was an accredited media outlet, and that we had an accreditation for the entire organization rather than an accreditation for each journalist.
"The police officers told us the news"
Maria Elyashevich: I began to have the fear of the unknown because nothing they promised came true, starting from "we will just check the accreditation" to "we will let you go in a moment." In an hour, two, three hours…

Andrei Shavlyugo: I thought that we were about to be released right to the bitter end. I had a nice conversation with a police department officer. I told the young man, who had recently graduated from the Academy of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, a story of two years ago when I had been brought to the police department for a document check as well. As the night wore on, it turned out that I had allegedly resisted the police officers. The police officer told me, "I apologize for those officers who drew up the protocol against you." He left the room for a couple of minutes and returned with his eyes locked on the ground. He said that an administrative process had been started against us. Everything he did later he did with a look of guilt. I want to believe that he was ashamed.

We spent the night in an assembly hall, on very comfortable chairs made by inmates of some correctional colony. If they were sold somewhere, I would buy one.

Maria Elyashevich: From time to time, an officer would tell us the news, "Look, you are on the main page of TUT.BY", "Look, people went to the Ministry of Internal Affairs." "Do you know Pomidorov?" asked the officer, scrolling through the Telegram [social media] feed. "He is now near the police department singing songs for you."

Andrei Shavlyugo: When the protocol was to be signed, we heard yelling beneath the windows. People started chanting our names. It was very nice.
"Journalists will never say "keep moving" because this is a very strange phrase"
Maria Elyashevich: The next day, the Skype trials began. My trial was 40 minutes late due to internet connection problems. They couldn't get through to the court. They called an IT specialist who said that there wasn't enough money on the account. Nobody knew the number of the account to replenish it. People started trying to share mobile internet from their phones. Everyone was nervous, freaking out…

Well, the trial finally began, and the nonsense continued. I could not hear most of the trial due to the poor connection. Later, I read about my trial with great interest: about a witness in a balaclava, for example, who refused to say what color his pants were. The witness said that he had seen me walking in a column and urging the protesters to continue moving. In order to identify the witness in video and photo materials, the lawyer asked him, what color his pants were, and the witness answered, "I won't tell you, I plan to stay in my job…"

I was accused of organizing protests. The prosecution statement read that I had been telling the crowd to "keep moving".

I thought that if I were given the last statement, I would definitely say that journalists who work with text would never ever say "keep moving" because it is a very strange phrase from a stylistic point of view. However, it turned out administrative cases have no space for final statements.

I asked them questions, "Who did I address? How? Did I shout through a megaphone?" They said that I had approached people. However, I had not approached people at that time at all because everything was so messy, the column was changing its direction all the time. It wasn't the best time and place for interviews.
"I could hardly hear half of the trial due to the poor connection"
Andrei Shavlyugo: In terms of technical issues, my trial was pretty much the same as Maria's one. I couldn't hear half of the trial either. Many trials had a witness in a balaclava named Kovalyov. However, even through the balaclava, it was clear that all these Kovalyovs were different people. That Kovalyov saw three journalists from different media in different parts of the column and heard them coordinate the movement of students with the same phrase, "Keep moving!"

Maria Elyashevich: My colleague Nikita, who only speaks Belarusian, all of a sudden decided to speak Russian at the rally for some reason, and allegedly urged students to "demand their rights and freedoms". Witnesses were asked questions, "How do you recognize the person?" They replied that "he stood out". One of my colleagues stood out because he was a man.

Andrei Shavlyugo:
A riot policeman gave me a gorgeous compliment. I stood out thanks to an athletic physique, a neat haircut, and a beautiful beard.

After the trial, we were told that our cases had been sent back for revision. We decided that the revision was good, that it meant we would be released and go home to sleep while they revised them. However, they turned out to be very hard-working and said they would finish our cases overnight, while we were to spend a "day" in the Okrestina detention center.

Maria Elyashevich: It was quite unexpected. We were a little upset, because even though there was a revision, it was distressing to be on trial for something you are not guilty of. And here they said that it was not only about justice – take out your laces from your shoes. And then everyone starts taking out their laces, pulling out belts and everything else. None of these things are allowed in the Okrestina detention center.

Andrei Shavlyugo: They took us away secretly in a 'Gazelle' minivan with windows tightly curtained. However, I still managed to wave at some girl. She later told the rest of the guys that she saw us.

Maria Elyashevich: We were put into cells with another person each. But in the morning they came to my cell and told me, "Take your stuff and follow!" I was escorted to another cell designed for six people and spent another two days there alone. No one explained anything.

The second day was the strangest. No information. I told the time by the scratching of forks and spoons against the plates. The forks scratched at lunchtime, which meant it was around 2 p.m. I kept waiting for the trial to take place, as we had been promised. One shall always keep one's promises! I walked around the cell, walked and walked until I saw it was already dark in the window, so I would unlikely see trial that day. The guys had a much better time in their cell, while I have nothing much to talk about. It's a shame.

Andrei Shavlyugo: Yes, we had fun. We made checkers from bread crumbs, but then some guys from a Medical-Labour Center were placed in our cell. They ate some of our checkers, so we had to replace them with chocolate from the parcels we received. So we later played with those guys – bread vs chocolate.

We got the parcels handed over to us very fast, much faster than other guys, as we later learned. At some point we started joking that we had a press tour around the detention center. Look how beautiful it was there! We sat in cells alone or with just one other person, played checkers, enjoyed life – the only condition was just stop doing journalism.

At some point, we heard the names of Dudinsky and Kohno (ex-TV presenters) shouted outside the door. We realized they were there too. It was a meeting place for wonderful people!

The night before the trial, I was summoned for questioning. They asked, "Well, where did you break through the crowd? Where did you go?" As far as I understood, they did not even know where the crowd was going, and they tried to find it out from me. It was very strange. I refused to answer and suggested continuing the next day, and for some reason they agreed.

The trial was practically a copy of the first trial. I didn't hear anything new. The judge was very annoyed with the connection and technical issues. Later, I saw the courtroom in photographs and I don't understand how I could even hear my lawyer, because he was standing on the other side of the courtroom.

I want to express my deep gratitude to the guys who found witnesses of my detainment, and the guys who volunteered to be witnesses at the trial. They saw me in my 'Press' vest, they saw that I was not coordinating anyone. That was a huge support for me during the trial. There were even some videos of us walking in the crowd. A riot policeman said that I had been walking at the front of the crowd, but the video showed that I had been at its back. It is absolutely unrealistic to coordinate a crowd while moving behind, as you can imagine.
"No one heard the verdict: the police called the court to clarify"
Maria Elyashevich: The revised trial was very similar to the unrevised one. During the first trial, the colleagues, while the judge was away, went to the monitor and started shouting, "Masha, Masha, how are you, are you ok?" I answered them. However, during the second trial, the cameras were taped and the microphone turned off until the judge arrived – to avoid such joyful "banter".

The trial ended in three-day sentences. I didn't even hear the verdict because of the bad connection. The police officers did not hear it either, so later they called the court and clarified the verdict.

The time of the arrest is counted from the moment of detention, and therefore our three days were to expire in an hour and a half. We spent that hour and a half in our cells. Then we were asked to neither make photos in front of the detention center not trample the lawns, and were released.

Andrei Shavlyugo: A huge crowd of colleagues met us. We were leaving the detention center like some kind of rock stars! There were so many people, both familiar and unfamiliar. We understood that we were doing the right thing, that we were supported. It means a lot.

Maria Elyashevich: As one of my colleagues said, it is not clear how to continue working. Because you may not violate anything, do nothing against the law, and yet you will sit somewhere at a Skype trial, and a man in a balaclava will look you in the face saying that you told the crowd to "keep moving", that you are a person with an unusual haircut so you stood out very much. And you can't do anything about that.
Unfortunately, for Andrei Shavlyugo, the misadventures were not over. On November 15, the journalist was detained while covering a Sunday protest rally in Minsk. On November 17, the Moskovskiy District Court sentenced the photojournalist to 15 days of administrative arrest.
Photo by Press Club Belarus

Published October 2020