At least 58 arrested at border crossings when returning to Belarus
According to the State Border Committee, 52 people were detained on "extremist" charges when entering Belarus last year. But according to Viasna's data, at least 58 Belarusians were arrested after crossing the border in 2022 and 2023. Of these, at least 10 have already been sentenced to imprisonment, four to home confinement, and several others are awaiting trials. The most "lucky" ones were held administratively responsible and served weeks in detention. Human rights activists are also aware of cases of law-enforcement officers seizing passports and other documents of some detained individuals to prevent them from leaving the country. The authorities have recently started a campaign on "inviting" Belarusians who had left in the last years to return home, promising they will not be persecuted provided they make an official confession and show repentance. However, a woman who decided to use the "The Way Home" program is now facing up to 15 years in prison. This text will explain why the security forces persecute Belarusians who are returning to the country from abroad, who received longer prison sentences, and what conditions the authorities list among those allowing for safe return.
Participation in protests, comments, sharing "extremist" content: who and on what grounds gets detained when entering the country
According to human rights defenders, in 2022 and the first month of 2023, at least 58 people were arrested when returning to Belarus from abroad. Of these, at least 10 were sentenced to prison terms of one to five years, four were sentenced to home confinement, and criminal cases were opened against seven others. The most “lucky” ones were held administratively responsible and served weeks in detention or released with huge fines.
"I met people detained after crossing the border. Probably, those who left after the 2020 protest were put in a separate database," a Minsk resident told about his cellmates in Minsk temporary detention center (TDC).
Most often they are detained upon their return from Poland or Lithuania, but there are also detentions after arrival from Ukraine, Latvia, Georgia, and Russia. Law enforcement officers take individuals off buses, meet them at bus or train stations, or come to arrest them at their homes.
In most cases, people are prosecuted for comments on social media or participation in the 2020 protests. But detainees can be immediately detained for administrative offenses such as sharing "extremist" content or photos with white-red-white symbols stored in their phones or posted on social media pages. Human rights activists are aware of cases of people being persecuted for participation in solidarity actions abroad.
"A certain Aliaksei did time with me, he came back from Poland. He worked there and came to visit his family. His family was from the Homieĺ Region, but he was detained in Minsk. He was tried for taking part in a protest in Warsaw in 2020. They also found some content he shared back in Warsaw," a former Minsk TDC inmate recalls.
People return for different reasons: some need to renew their passports or obtain a visa, some need medical treatment or visit their loved ones, and others rush to a funeral of a family member.
Thus, in mid-December, a couple of photographers, Varvara and Pavel Miadzvedzeus, were detained in Minsk, where they arrived to receive medical treatment.
According to pro-regime media, the family lived abroad for two years, and upon their return to Belarus, they were detained for participation in the 2020 protests and diaspora activities in Poland, as well as for leaving offensive comments online. The couple reportedly returned to Minsk for treatment. At first, they were sentenced to administrative detention. But Varvara was never released after her time was over — a criminal case was opened against her, and she was transferred to a pre-trial detention facility.
At the end of December, the law enforcers detained Hanna Liviant, the daughter of a well-known persecuted tutor Yauhen Liviant, and her husband Mikita Drozd. It happened after their return from Poland. As a result, they were sentenced to a few weeks of administrative detention. Now the entire family has been criminally charged and transferred to Minsk pre-trial detention center. Russian journalist Ekaterina Yanshina who spent 15 days in Minsk TDC recounted the details of Hanna and Mikita's detention:
"They were detained in court when they came to her parents' trial. During the morning count, she listened out for her parents' last names. She assumed that she would be criminally prosecuted.”
Pavel Mazheika, a political prisoner and head of the Hrodna-based Center for Urban Life, was detained on 30 August 2022 upon his return to Belarus. The reason for the detention is unknown since the journalist's lawyer has signed a non-disclosure pledge. He has been in custody for over five months now.
Human rights activists have recently got to know about the detainees' passports and other documents being damaged by law enforcement officers. Thus, a former Minsk TDC inmate said that one of his cellmates had his passport, employment contract, and Polish residence card shredded, while another person's passport was torn apart. It was also reported that one of the inmates had his Polish work visa and driving license seized.
"The trail to jail": How the authorities urge those who left to return, only to arrest them after
In late January 2023, Anatol Lapo, chairman of the State Border Committee, announced the number of individuals arrested after their return to Belarus:
"When trying to enter Belarus, 52 people were identified as involved in extremist activities in some way," Lapo said, as quoted by a pro-regime publication.
At the same time, Lukashenka announced a "critical decision" to create an inter-agency commission to work with Belarusian emigrants, headed by Prosecutor General Andrei Shved. According to Shved, the commission will inform those willing to return to Belarus about any issues that government agencies might have with them and the possibility of returning without going to jail. Allegedly, the commission will carefully examine each of the applicants to prevent the admission of "extremists and terrorists" to Belarus. The verification will employ "the information resources and databases available in the law enforcement system.”
This is not the first attempt by law enforcement agencies to encourage people to return. At the end of 2021, the "Way Home" program was initiated, supposedly "allowing those who left to return without consequences.” However, Belarusians need to meet certain conditions and demands for that to happen.
This is what 49-year-old protest chat room administrator Tatsiana Kurylina chose to do, but she ended up in jail charged with 12 crimes.
It is reported that Kurylina had been abroad for a long time. In January 2022, Belarusian security forces hacked several protest chat rooms. The following month, the woman appeared on Belarusian television in a show hosted by regime promoter Ksenia Lebedzeva. It turned out that Kurylina returned to Belarus.
On the show, she looked tired and said the chats made no sense and were controlled by the Polish intelligence services. She also claimed to have close contact with BYPOL and talked about the nuances of her work.
According to BYPOL, Tatsiana Kurylina was seduced online by a young man who asked her to come see him in Belarus, promising to arrange her safe arrival. She returned, but the whole scheme was part of a KGB special operation.
"For many Belarusians, the way home looks like a highway to prison" — a Viasna human rights activist
Dziyana Pinchuk, a Viasna human rights activist, stressed the high risks that coming back to Belarus entails and recalled that the mass repression has not stopped for a day in the last two and a half years:
"This remains a sensitive and relevant issue for many Belarusians. Unfortunately, for many of us, the way home looks like a highway to prison. If you've been socially and politically active between 2020 and today — you've taken part in protests in Belarus and abroad, posted comments on social media, donated to support victims of repression in Belarus or war in Ukraine, have been active in a neighborhood chat room, even if you had left it long ago, have shared a new Naviband video posted by Radio Liberty — your risks of persecution upon return to Belarus are extremely high.
In times of judicial default, exercising one's rights guaranteed by the Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is regarded by the Belarusian authorities as ‘participation in actions that grossly violate public order,’ ‘incitement of social enmity or discord,’ ‘insulting a public official,’ ‘discrediting Belarus’ and other crimes. Unfortunately, there are no working mechanisms for the protection of human rights in Belarus today, so there is a high probability of ending up behind bars, just like thousands of Belarusians.
Once someone asked us if it was safe for him to return to Belarus, because ‘the number of reported arrests and political prisoners is decreasing.’ Unfortunately, nowadays this is not a reliable indicator of the repression level. It only illustrates the level of intimidation that prevents people from publishing facts of persecution and reporting the detention of their relatives. Former Minsk TDC inmates keep informing us about crowds of political detainees in there — and this has been going on for two and a half years. Human rights defenders continue to publish the testimonies and stories of Minsk TDC and other facilities’ inmates and thus inform the public about the scale of repression."
The stories of ten political prisoners who ended up behind bars after returning home
Aleh Kanavalau — 386 days in custody
The creator of the Third Region Belarus YouTube channel was detained upon his return to Belarus from Ukraine on 10 January 2022. The political prisoner was accused of de-anonymizing the police, “posting anti-state content on social media, and promoting resistance to the authorities.” On his channel, Kanavalau posted videos of solidarity actions that Belarusians organized in Kyiv. He was also accused of posting "cynical comments" about the deceased KGB officer Dzmitry Fedasiuk and insulting Lukashenka.
On 7 September 2023, Homieĺ Regional Court sentenced Aleh to five years of imprisonment, a fine of $1,270, and $1,980 of emotional damages to the aggrieved policeman.
Illia Vaitsiakhovich — 381 days in custody
The 37-year-old son of a well-known businessman was detained on 15 January 2022, when on his way from Riga to his father's funeral. He was accused of participating in 2020 protests which was classified as a "gross violation of public order." On 10 May 2022, Yulia Shut, a judge of Minsk Leninski District Court, sentenced the political prisoner to two years in prison.
Alesia Bunevich — 302 days in custody
The director of a Vilnius printing house was detained on 4 April 2022 upon traveling from Lithuania to Belarus to attend her mother's death anniversary.
At first, it was reported that the young woman was accused of "committing an act of terrorism in collusion" (part 2 of Art. 289 of the Criminal Code) in the case of "rail sabotage partisans.” In the end, the accusation was changed to part 3 of Article 371 of the Criminal Code (intentional illegal crossing of the state border of the Republic of Belarus committed by an organized group).
On 18 November 2022, Hrodna District Court sentenced the political prisoner to three and a half years in jail. She was tried in camera, but it is known that she pleaded not guilty. Alesia's minor son is waiting for her release.
Aliaksandr Kudlovich — 229 days in custody
The photographer from Baranavičy was detained on 16 June 2022. He was forced to leave for Russia due to political persecution in 2020 but had to return to Belarus in May 2022, because his passport expired.
He was charged under part 1 Article 368 of the Criminal Code (insulting Lukashenka) and Article 369 of the Criminal Code (insulting a public official). It is known that in September and November 2020, Kudlovich posted insulting comments about Lukashenka, as well as the then-Minister of Internal Affairs Yury Karayeu, in a Telegram channel and Viber messenger. On 17 August 2022, Aliaksandr was sentenced to two years in prison.
Uladzimir Serhienka — 222 days in custody
Uladzimir was detained on 23 June 2022 in Vaŭkavysk. Pro-regime Telegram channels reported that the man left for Poland and allegedly insulted the police and Lukashenka while staying there.
He was detained upon his return to Belarus and sentenced to 10 days of administrative detention. However, Uladzimir was later charged under part 2 of Article 367 of the Criminal Code (libeling Lukashenka) and Article 369 of the Criminal Code (insulting a public official).
On 30 September 2022, Vaŭkavysk District Court found the political prisoner guilty and sentenced him to two years of imprisonment.
Dzmitry Yanushkevich — 210 days in custody
Dzmitry Yanushkevich was detained on 5 July 2022 for offensive posts on social media about Lukashenka (Article 368 of the Criminal Code) and the state flag (Article 370 of the Criminal Code). He reacted to a publication in the "Stop-Luka" group which caused an image of Lukashenka against the background of a swastika to appear on his feed.
On 23 September 2022, Natallia Kozel, a judge of Hrodna Leninski District Court, sentenced the political prisoner to one year of imprisonment.
Valery Tumilevich — 198 days in custody
Valery lived in Poland for a long time, and on his return on 17 July 2022, he was detained at the border crossing. At first, he was sentenced to 10 days of administrative detention for distributing extremist content, but was never released. Instead, a criminal case was brought against him for insulting Lukashenka while staying abroad.
According to the prosecution, Tumilevich was an active participant in several protest Telegram chats in the town of Lida where he posted several messages with obscene and insulting words regarding Lukashenka. Valery pleaded guilty in full.
On 27 September 2022, Lida District Court found him guilty under Article 368 of the Criminal Code and sentenced him to a year and a half in prison.
Katsiaryna Hlinskaya — 193 days in custody
EPAM specialist Katsiaryna Hlinskaya was detained by the Main Directorate of Combating Organized Crime and Corruption on 22 July 2022 in Minsk. Pro-regime Telegram channels reported that the woman was an active participant in the protests in 2020 and moved to Lithuania at the end of that year. Two years later she came to Belarus and was arrested.
The security forces published a video in which she admits to participating in protests and blocking traffic. Katsiaryna and her sister were picked up in the street and brought for a search in their home.
On 14 October 2022, the Partyzanski District Court of Minsk found Hlinskaya guilty and sentenced her to two years of imprisonment.
Andrei Karpenka — 116 days in custody
Andrei was detained in early October 2022 after his return to Belarus. His "repentant video" was posted by law enforcement officers. In the four-minute recording, Karpenka talks about how bad life is in Europe and Canada, where Belarusians are treated as "second-class" people and rents are high. Andrei said he preferred living in Belarus or Russia.
The political prisoner was charged under part 2 of Article 367 of the Criminal Code (libeling Lukashenka) and part 1 of Article 342 of the Criminal Code (active participation in actions that grossly violate public order). On 25 January 2023, the Čyhunačny District Court of Homieĺ sentenced Andrei to three years of imprisonment.
Ryhor Vasilkou — 104 days in custody
The Brest resident was detained on 19 October 2022 at the train station on his way back from work. From November 2020 to March 2022, he lived in Ukraine. Upon his return to Belarus, a criminal case was filed against Ryhor for his participation in a protest in Brest (Article 342 of the Criminal Code) on 13 September 2020. Back then, protesters took to the roadway and were dispersed by a water cannon.
On 23 December 2022, the political prisoner was sentenced to one year of imprisonment.