“WITHOUT THE RIGHT OF CORRESPONDENCE” DZIANIS IVASHYN, THE STORY OF AN INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALIST
by PRESS UNDER PRESSURE Press Club Belarus
Dzianis Ivashyn was taken into custody by KGB officers in Hrodna on March 12, 2021. He was charged with “interfering with activities of a law enforcement officer.” Six months later, one more charge, high treason, was brought. Here, the journalist’s story is told by his colleagues and relatives.
Dzianis Ivashyn lives in Hrodna, and he is a volunteer editor of the Belarusian-language version of the website of InformNapalm international volunteer community, and a freelance correspondent of Novyi Chas, a Belarusian newspaper.
He is famous for his investigations of the Russia’s influence on Belarus and Syria, the coverage of the scandalous construction of a restaurant near Kurapaty in Minsk, and the employment of ex-officers of Ukraine’s notorious Berkut by uniformed agencies in Belarus.
The journalist had a heart attack while in custody. He was subjected to disciplinary segregation at least five times. Over the last two months, no letters have been delivered to or from Dzianis; all his requests for visits from relatives have been denied. Human rights groups consider Ivashyn to be a political prisoner.
ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN IN THE COURT
Volha Ivashyna, Wife
I met Dzianis over seven years ago, sort of by accident—I had been arrested with leaflets at a support Ukraine event I organized, and a court session had been scheduled. He found out about this event and asked me who I was and why he did not know me. He found me on Facebook; later, we met in person at the Language Anew course. We started dating almost immediately.
I liked Dzianis for his openness, candidness, and integrity. He cherished his work, certain that he was doing something valuable and necessary.
Journalism, searching for information, and analyzing it took an especially important place in his life. I sometimes complained about Dzianis’s having much less time for me than for his job.
Photo: from Volha Ivashyna’s Facebook page
THEY ARE PUNISHING HIM FOR EVERY MISSTEP WITH TEN DAYS OF DISCIPLINARY SEGREGATION
There are major issues with correspondence. His letters to us have not been delivered for more than two months. Recently, they stopped taking my letters. I attempted to address the problem. I was notified that almost all the letters I had sent were collected. I am not sure, however, whether they are going to be delivered to Dzianis. They keep responding along the lines of “Everything is fine; we are delivering everything.” But nothing is ever delivered to Dzianis. I have no idea where to file further complaints. A suggestion was made to file a complaint with the court, but I haven’t done it yet.
We are hardly aware of what they are doing to him over there. Not a single telegram was delivered. They do accept care packages, when he’s not in disciplinary segregation.
As far as we are aware, they segregate him for every minor infraction, for which other inmates are never disciplined. So for every misstep, he is punished with ten days of disciplinary segregation.
You can never know what to expect from the investigators. Everything can happen in the court, but nobody says anything about the court. This is not the investigators’ initiative but an instruction from the top. Whatever they tell them, they will oblige.
I don’t know whether it makes sense to write letters if they are not delivered. On the other hand, you can send money or care packages—they are required to deliver them.
MOST OF ALL, THEY ARE AFRAID OF PUBLICITY
Liudmyla Ivashyna, Dzianis’s mother
Dzianis became serious about journalism after Maidan; he was concerned about Ukraine… Dzianis’s father is Ukrainian, and Dzianis has a Ukrainian abroad card. He suddenly left for Ukraine and stayed there for three weeks. I was really all nerves, sitting at the PC, watching everything live.
In Kyiv, he met the guys from InformNapalm; he wanted to keep track of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. They were searching for intelligence in open sources, using OSINT methods, trying to deliver true and factual information to the people.
Dzianis was translating for them, learning a lot in the process. After that, he started writing about Belarus, and he really took the plunge into his work. He was looking for intel literally around the clock.
Photo: From Volha Ivashyna’s Facebook page
THEY STARE IN YOUR EYES AND KEEP SILENT
They harassed Dzianis a lot in the jail. They kept “interviewing” him without a lawyer, transferring him from one cell to another. One can only guess what these interviews were like.
We were shocked when Dzianis had a heart attack. He’s never had any cardiac issues or attacks. He is a very calm and composed person; he has never been rude to anyone, never cursed. And suddenly, this heart attack.
They stopped torturing him when we became vocal after the heart attack, after the incessant disciplinary segregation. For this reason, I am certain that they are afraid of publicity.
We have not received any letters from Dzianis for more than two months. Someone prohibited it, I believe. Left him “without the right of correspondence.”
I visited the deputy jail warden. I tried to find out why he was not permitted to write and receive letters, appealing to their conscience. But they are just staring in your eyes and keep silent.
Dzianis wrote very affectionate letters. You read them for the one hundredth time, and you are crying for the one hundredth time. But, he was incredibly supportive, trying to calm me down, “Mom, I have a life here. I am setting up some kind of home here; just accept it, and don’t you worry so much, don’t think about it.” But how can I refrain from thinking about it?
After six months in custody, they brought a new charge. Again, there were no investigative activities other than the “interviews.” Looks like they had to decide whether to let him go or not. Thus, they decided to accuse him of “high treason” under Article 356 of the Criminal Code.
We could not find it out immediately; everything was kept secret, and the lawyer had to sign a non-disclosure statement. So we kept writing letters, asking them to explain Dzianis’s charge. Still, we managed to get information about the article number. So why were they keeping it secret?
It is so difficult to help in such a situation. Soon, it’ll be nine months. No letters, no visitation. We can only hope that the regime will go down, and all the innocents will be set free. Then, Dzianis will write a book for future generations about what has been going on in today’s Belarus.
THEY WANT TO PRESENT DZIANIS AS A CRIMINAL, BUT HE’S NOT ONE
Andrеi Mialeshka, journalist
I’ve known Dzianis Ivashyn for almost thirty years from the school.
Dzianis’s visit to Ukraine during the Revolution of Dignity on Maidan gave him the impetus to become a journalist. Dzianis started cooperating with InformNapalm—first, as a citizen journalist, he was pursued some investigations; later, he became the editor of the Belarusian version of the website.
Actually, I’ve never expected Dzianis to become an investigative journalist. It is one thing to write articles about ongoing events and politics. It is a different thing to engage in large-scale investigations based on requests for information, for instance addressed to foreign authorities. I was really in awe about his work.
Last year, Dzianis was very critical of the events in Belarus. He was going to come up with an investigation covering Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and Viktar Babaryka, a large political overview. Unfortunately, he was unable to complete it in March.
Dzianis is a principled journalist who strives for perfection and precision. And he is a man of integrity and responsibility. He is very picky about his friends. He only has a few, but they are friends for real.
Dzianis Ivashyn and Andrei Mialeshka. The photo has been provided by Andrei Mialeshka.
I THOUGHT DZIANIS WOULD BE FREE SOON
I was waiting for the search results near his apartment door. I thought he would be released soon because there is no real case against him.
He always worked honestly, using open sources, sending official requests for information to various agencies, receiving replies, and writing articles on their basis. Thus, the only thing I can say one thing about the first criminal case against Dzianis (Article 365 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus “Interference with Activities of a Police Officer”) is that “Guys, it was you who provided all the information.”
Dzianis has been held hostage for several months. I believe it is an attempt to pressure the Ukrainians because Dzianis holds a Ukrainian abroad ID, is acquainted with lots of Ukrainian journalists, and has taken part in many conferences. Anyway, they are trying to pass him for a criminal, but he is not one.
THIS IS RETALIATION AGAINST DZIANIS
Siarhei Pulsha, Deputy Editor of Novyi Chas newspaper
I met Dzianis for the first time when he was working for InformNapalm. Sometimes, we printed posts he made on social media. It was very interesting at that time because he studied the activities of the Russian troops, their presence in Ukraine’s Donbas region and Ukraine in general. Back in 2014 it was a hot topic. Later, he joined our newspaper and started studying Belarusian issues.
Dzianis approached his investigations very professionally. He never published unverified information; he was very meticulous in choosing the right words. If he was not 100% sure, he would write “probably” in an article.
He reviewed open-source information about Poiediem Poiedim restaurant in Kurapaty despite all the claims filed against Novyi Chas by the restaurant’s founders. Fundamentally, we were successful in these trials—we won the first one, and our loss in the second one was caused by an editor publishing an article about this restaurant from a different source, rather than from Dzianis.
This situation demonstrates how responsible Dzianis was in approaching the presentation and verification of the material. Even in this case, we managed to win, especially if we consider how our courts operate and who the restaurant’s founders are. In my opinion, this is the highest recognition of Dzianis as a journalist, as an investigator, because it demonstrates his professional level and the quality of his work.
In Novyi Chas, we used to make short 4-to-5-minute videos based on Dzianis’s articles presented by Dzianis and featuring the stories. I was present when a video was filmed. It took four to five hours. Dzianis was very thorough; he could say that “No, this word is not appropriate here; let us make another take” or “We are not really certain, let me change the wording of this sentence,” or “We are not absolutely certain, so I am going to say “probably.”
It was so interesting to keep an eye on Dzianis’ making these videos, with him trying to formulate everything more precisely, put every word at its right place so that there would be no basis for a complaint.
Photo: from Volha Ivashyna’s Facebook page
HE IS FULLY ISOLATED
There is, and there has been no correspondence to or from him. He is fully isolated. I have not received any response to my letters. When Novyi Chas was still published on paper, we sent a copy for Dzianis to the detainment center. There was no response either; he may have written to us, but his letters have not been let through. We don’t even know if he has ever received the newspaper.
They are probably retaliating against Dzianis for his latest investigation about ex-Berkut servicemen now employed by the Minsk OMON squad. The charge against him was in line with this assumption.
We are aware he is charged with purportedly divulging data about police officers. This is a bullshit charge because Dzianis applied the OSINT methodology in all his investigations using open-source information only, disclosing no secrets. He worked with the open-source information, systematized it, drew his own conclusions. For instance, he used info from the websites of the Minsk Executive Committee and the Ministry of Interior. Thus, the only parties against which this charge should be leveled are the state authorities that published the details used by Dzianis on the Internet.
In my opinion, there is no crime, but “it is not about the law” in this country right now.
THE REGIME DID NOT LIKE HIS BERKUT INVESTIGATION
Oksana Kolb, Editor-in-Chief of Novyi Chas
Dzianis is very ingenious, ideally ingenious. He is very good at investigating. He can process large amounts of data, find something, bring it up, and analyze it. He has always worked with open-source information, and all his investigations are based on open-source intelligence. He used records from the Universal State Register, from various state authorities—whatever information was public but not prominent. And Dzianis was able to notice, collect, and crystallize it.
His Kurapaty investigation series cost him and editors two court trials. We won one of them and partly lost the other one. We probably lost it because of a mistake made by the person publishing the material on the website, and it was a reprint, not our article. We didn’t notice a minor inaccuracy and had to pay. There were no claims against Dzianis.
He has always approached his texts with great responsibility. Evidently, all issues raised by him were sensitive, so we had to re-read Dzianis’s texts. We sent some of them to lawyers to make sure there was no basis for claims.
Dzianis is sincere and kind; he is always there for you and is very principled. However, sometimes, it wasn’t helpful for him because of his youthful exuberance. He should have rather kept his mouth shut at times but was unable to.
Novyi Chas’s office Photo: from Volha Ivashyna’s Facebook page
WE CAN ONLY GUESS WHAT THE FOURTH PART OF THE BERKUT INVESTIGATION WAS ABOUT
When Dzianis was taken into custody, there was yet another media attack against Ukraine. We were told that they had been training insurgents with support from special services. Dzianis commented on this, and a journalist asked him if SBU officers had contacted him in connection with his investigation. Dzianis told him openly that they hadn’t, but he had indeed contacted them to get intel from them on ex-Berkut officers who were in Belarus. At the time, the context was different, but I do believe that it could have been a trigger. And later on… They were only concerned with taking him down.
The regime did not like his Berkut investigation. Three parts were published, and Dzianis was preparing the fourth part. He already had collected the materials and only needed to write it up. He told me that this part was going to be even more explosive, “I’m on it, I’ll deliver it soon.”
The fourth part has not been published, and we can only guess what it had to be about. His materials have probably been confiscated. However, everything is open, and Dzianis took a lot of information from the website of the Ministry of Interior.
There are hardly any letters coming to or from Dzianis. I think there was one letter from him. Long-long ago. He managed to convey his greetings, respect, and support via the relatives.
Novyi Chas newspaper has never been delivered to him despite the subscription. He was shown several issues, but none were given to him. His wife complained about it but was told that it was an extremist newspaper, and it would not be handed over.
If I had met Dzianis, I would only tell him, “Come back to work soon. We need you so much!”
A letter to the mother, September 2021:
“My dear mother,
The first week of autumn is over. I am writing this letter on this day of Belarusian combat glory. Today is the 507th anniversary of the Battle of Orsha. The chivalry, honor, and dignity of our heroic ancestors reassure me of the Belarusian people’s eventual absolute and final victory over the forces of darkness, desperation, stupefaction, fraud, indifference, and perfidy.
I don’t know how much time will be needed, but Justice and the Truth will rule in our country. The past brings this time closer, together with our family reunion; it will happen soon anyway. Our patience, equanimity, faith, and vigor will help us along this way.
The destiny of our extended family has always been, and now even more so, linked to the destiny of our Motherland; thus, we have to tread this path with Honor and Dignity, with the chivalrous ideals of our ancestors.”
A letter to the wife, September 2021:
“As a pilgrim, let me tell you about my condition. I am well; I am trying to walk at least 3 km in the jail yard every day. I am very pleased but also sad when the weather is fine during this walk. I am only sad for one reason—I imagine how we could have spent this time under the blue skies and the bright sun…
My morale, now as before, is up in the stratosphere; I am focused only on the victory of the forces of light and good and on my desire to walk this way toward you.”
Address for Letters, Postcards, and Parcels
Jail No. 1, 230023, Hrodna, 1 Vulitsa Kirava,
Dzianis Yauhenavich Ivashyn
You can also transfer money for Dzianis:
Jail No. 1, Hrodna,
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Translated for InformNapalm by Oleksandr Ivanov.
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