Iryna Khalip | Under house arrest in Belarus

By Erin Luhmann

February 27, 2013 — In October 2009, IWMF Courage in Journalism Awardee Iryna Khalip, a reporter for Novaya Gazeta, one of the last remaining independent media outlets in Belarus, delivered her acceptance speech in New York. Her freedom to travel and pursue stories of interest, however, has since been revoked.

After temporarily throwing Khalip in prison for covering post-election protests in Minsk on December 19, 2010, local authorities have been reluctant to respect her privacy. Awaiting trial under strict house arrest, Khalip is kept prisoner on her local reporting grounds. The KGB has been monitoring Khalip’s every move – tracking her e-mails, interrupting her Internet connection, and tapping her phone calls. But her advocates, including those at the IWMF, are also keeping watch over her.

Reflecting on the abuses she has faced in Belarus since receiving her award from the IWMF, Khalip said, “Despite all of the punishment, pain, and suffering that I’ve experienced as a result of my profession, I have not for one second regretted the fact that I chose journalism to be my career.”

This assertion of perseverance puts her at constant odds with the local dictatorship that would like to silence her. Khalip’s fate – freedom or a 15-year prison sentence – will be determined July 22, 2013 in court. Addressing her situation at a recent press conference, President Lukashenko refuted rumors that Khalip is being held against her will in Belarus.

Having endured more than 20 months of legal and psychological persecution, however, Khalip denounced Lukashenko’s statement. Calling it a “moment of provocation,” she explained that if she left the country, she would immediately be thrown in prison for violating the terms of her house arrest. And prison is the last place she wants to end up again.

“I understand that in dealing with the KGB prison that there was nothing they could do physically to me that compared with the psychological attacks that they continued to apply,” said Khalip.

While in prison, Khalip had no contact with her lawyer or family. The authorities took away her watch, to augment her sense of isolation, and taunted her with threats that they were sending her young son to an orphanage. In this destitute environment, Khalip says that she drew strength from her Courage in Journalism Award.

“Even when I was sitting in prison, I knew that I wasn’t alone, and it wasn’t just me, one-on-one, facing a dictator,” she said. “I knew that there were people who were supporting me.”

Khalip has been separated from her husband Andrei Sannikov, a former presidential candidate, since he sought (and received) asylum in Great Britain after the 2010 protests and subsequent crack down that landed him in a KGB prison, as well. In rural Minsk, she continues to raise their five-year-old son under the constant surveillance of the KGB. They follow her in plain view of her neighbors, not even attempting to be inconspicuous anymore, explained Khalip. In addition to resisting these intimidation measures, Khalip must also report to authorities on a weekly basis and abide by her 10:00 p.m. curfew if she wants to make it to her trial date in July without facing any more complications.

After 24 years of working in a totalitarian country, she is familiar with complicated situations. In her Courage Awardee acceptance speech, Khalip explained dictatorships look to “destroy [journalists] or buy them out.” Since she refuses to be bought out, she has developed a compulsive safety routine.

Every day, Khalip surveys her surroundings when she steps outside of her house to make sure no assailant is waiting for her. She also needs to remember to keep her windows and doors locked from the inside. When she gets to her car, she checks to make sure that nobody has tampered with the brake line or the wheels. To curtail hackers, she changes her computer and online passwords once a day as well.

This routine may keep her safe from physical attacks, such as the murder of her former colleague and 2002 Courage in Journalism Awardee, Anna Politkovskaya. But Khalip claims that the support of her advocates plays an equally valuable role in ensuring her safety. The more they write about her, publicizing her legal situation, the more control she regains over her situation.

“The most difficult situation for me would be if people just started to forget,” said Khalip. “That would be the most damaging because then the authorities would be able to take drastic measures without there being any type of public backlash.”

With the help of a lawyer, Khalip is keeping her case public while they prepare to appeal her case to the Supreme Court and the UN Human Rights Committee. This international court system requires interested parties to exhaust all national court systems in order to be considered, a process that can be both financially and emotionally draining.

Fortunately, Khalip’s employers at Novaya Gazeta have continued to support her and her family, even though her reports from the Minsk bureau have been temporarily put on hold. Her main objective over the next six months, she says, is to remain a free person and to obtain her freedom through the necessary court processes.

From her current state of limbo, Khalip was hesitant to express any optimism. Recent reports indicate that local authorities might actually prefer to let Khalip leave Belarus rather than continue to deal with the critical attention she is drawing from the international community. However, this invitation to reunite her with her husband in Great Britain or editors in Moscow, Khalip warns, is a merely a “one way ticket.”

“Now they press me to exile,” she said. “But they will not win.”

Update: July 19, 2013 — A Belarusian court rescinded Khalip’s jail sentence today. After the ruling, Khalip said she didn’t feel safe in Belarus because journalists and opposition activists continue to be persecuted. “As long as this regime of fascists and bastards exists, there is no such thing as a ‘former’ political prisoner in Belarus. That’s all. Moreover, even those who are not imprisoned right now are still political prisoners.”

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