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«I will stand in the sunshine, which I have not done for eight months». First interview with Yulia Slutskaya after her release

Members of the Press Club Belarus team spent nearly eight months in jail. The founder and head of the Press Club Belarus, Yulia Slutskaya, spoke about what she had to go through there.

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– You never think it will happen to you.

– I knew that in theory this might happen, but theory and reality are quite different things. It took me a while to process everything. It is human nature to hope, but that causes a problem: you keep hoping that this isn’t really happening; that the mistake will be corrected, and you will be released. This hope weakens you and interferes with responding objectively. If I had known at the start what was to come, I would have behaved very differently – but it is so hard to accept that this is really happening to you. Those on the other side are well aware of this; they use it to manipulate you. You hope that they will just talk to you and then let you go, but they intimidate you until you question your own innocence.

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The first interrogation lasted almost 36 hours and I had no legal representation. I was scared. The interrogators rotated, but I was there the whole time without a break. Again, I knew that in theory I should say nothing beyond “yes” and “no”, but I said more because I was telling the truth. How could that be dangerous? At that point I did not appreciate that things that you do not believe to be violations of the law can and will be used against you.

Eventually I simply refused to speak because my thoughts were becoming too disorganised. That’s when they gave me an hour to sleep – at the table – with the lights on. I am still haunted by those first 36 hours.

After that, the Akrestsin cell bed seemed heavenly to me, because I could lie down, turn away from everyone and sleep.

 

 

– Realizing that my son is sitting in another cell…

– … that was scary. When I found out that Petya had been detained, I was shocked. I realized that this is serious and that in this situation we are absolutely powerless with no leverage. That was another scary moment for me. I am not afraid of difficult situations, crises, and trials. I do not welcome them anymore than anyone else, but I am not afraid, because I know that a lot depends on me, and I can always do something. It was the first time in my life that nothing was under my control. Overall. None of it. It was almost unbearable and very hard to come to terms with it, but I had to learn that humility.


Pyotr and Alexandra Slutsky after Peter's release from the pre-trial detention centre.
Photo from the personal archive of the Slutsky

I understood that Petya was simply a hostage. He was a cameraman and sound engineer; he had nothing to do with financial affairs. He was placed in one of the worst cells in the prison – the so called “Shanghai” – located in a perpetually damp basement where 25 men occupy 30 square meters on three tiered bunks.

In that cell, cigarettes went mouldy after a few days. Rats and cockroaches ate the bread and sausage brought by relatives.

 

Compared to Petya, my conditions were excellent – only eight people in a 15-meter cell. We had two tier bunks and lived like royalty.

The proportion of people detained for political reasons gradually increased. In the cell with me were Marfa Rabkova from "Viasna", Alla Lapatko from TUT.by. I saw Andrei Alexandrov; he is holding on and staying cheerful, holding on, he is with Ira (Irina Zlobina, the girlfriend of journalist and media manager Andrei Alexandrov, who was detained with him and placed in a pre-trial detention centre on January 12, 2021. - Ed.). They are going to get married in the pre-trial detention centre. Olya Loyko is also staying cheerful, as is Lyudmila Chekina who I met at the very beginning. Everyone is holding up well; there are no tears and despondency.

Depend on fate, but do not rush it

– At first you think it will all be over in maybe 10 days. Then you think maybe two months. Then-four months. You live with these hopes, and they weaken you. Only when I realized that I must live every day as it is, to believe in something, but not to constantly hope, to rely on fate, but not to rush it, did it become easier for me.

– After being locked away for 8 months, how much do you know of the current situation in the country?

– I had a TV in my cell all the time, so I watched Belarusian news and official programmes. I have a much better understanding of how state propaganda works now. I even kept a notebook of official statements – even in my worst nightmare I could not imagine that people calling themselves journalists can utter such words from the screens of the state Belarusian television, which we all pay for. I was aware of the news.

– But this is such a fraudulent version of Belarus…

– Yes, but during the analytical programmes they often alluded to real news. Many developments were clear from the kind of people who came to us in the pre-trial detention centre. In July, the Russian Nezavisimaya Gazeta came to us, with a very good Belarusian agenda. This was a source of alternative news. However, in general my picture of what is happening in the country is painted with a broad brush. Like a person with strong myopia, I am aware of the general shapes, but not the details.

The pardon is not connected to the Voskresensky programme

– What is the story behind your pardon?

– I must make it clear from the start that our release has nothing to do with the Voskresensky programme. We all received the letter, it came to all five of the political detainees in our cell, but none of us replied.

We did not submit a petition for clemency ourselves. It did not even occur to us; they came to us with the proposal.

– Is it possible to pardon the unconvicted?

– There is an article in the Criminal Code which provides for a criminal case to be terminated upon an admission of guilt and two-fold repayment of damages.

I thought about this proposal for a long time and did not consent, but then I saw that we were stuck and there was end in sight; that it was completely useless and pointless.

The admission of guilt does not require us to incriminate anyone but ourselves. We will survive this because we are intelligent adults who understand what is happening.

We just had to get out. It was my decision to make, so I made it and asked the team to listen to me and accept it. We all had friends and relatives waiting for us and suffering alongside us all these months. However, it was still not an easy decision to make.

– The Press Club Belarus, and therefore you, were accused of incorrect payment of taxes.

– We allegedly used a simplified taxation code that we were not eligible for because we rented out the Press Club premises. The fact that we worked in the same space ourselves, and organised events, promotion and filming did not make any difference.

Our admission of liability was of the form: we worked, held events, acted within the framework of our mission, consulted with accountants and lawyers, paid taxes and were sure that we were not breaking any rules. However, if the investigators believe that there are violations, we are prepared to admit guilt and pay compensation.

Following that, we drafted a petition for clemency.

– Was the compensation paid by the Press Club Belarus?

Yes, all the funds that we had in the Press Club accounts, and the money that my daughter received from selling real estate.


Yulia Slutskaya with her daughter Alexandra. Photos from the personal archive of heroes

– All these months Ksenia Lutskina was implicated in the so-called “Press Club Case”.

– During all interrogations, we maintained that Ksenia and her cameraman had nothing to do with the activities of the Press Club. Ksenia once participated in a Press Club hackathon, and her project was among the winners. I've only seen her once at the Press Club and then fleetingly. The second time I saw her was in front of the Investigative Committee.

I don't know if she was offered the chance to write a petition. I know she is now facing a new charge under a different article.

– The main thing now is to recover?

– The main thing is to take care of my health. I will have my eyes, lungs and blood checked. I will endlessly hug my family as much as I can. I'll walk. I will look at the sunshine, which I have not seen for eight months, because we lived in the dark under poor artificial light. I will go mushroom hunting with Sasha. My granddaughter Alice and I will bake cookies. In short, I will be engaged in rehabilitation.

By Press Club Belarus

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