Watch Docs Belarus director Tatsiana Hatsura-Yavorska was arrested in Minsk on April 5, following the controversy surrounding an exhibition she co-organized, entitled “Machine is Breathing, and I Am Not”.
The incident sparked a global outcry among the film community, which called the arrest “a classic piece of shameless brutality by the Belarusian authorities.” Belarus, often referred to as “Europe’s last dictatorship,” has been governed by Alexander Lukashenko since 1994.
As reported by Variety, Hatsura-Yavorska has since been released from prison. But alongside colleagues Natallya Trenina, Yuliya Semenchanka, Hanna Sakalouskaya and Volha Shapakouskaya, she remains a suspect in the criminal case, accused of organizing group actions that violate public order and involve disobedience to the authorities. As of now, she is also banned from leaving the country.
The latter, in particular, is a troubling development given the festival director’s husband, Volodymyr Yavorskiy, was forced to immediately leave Belarus following her arrest, and was forbidden from returning for 10 years. Yavorskiy is also a known human rights defender and one of the founders of the Ukrainian human rights festival, Docudays UA.
In an interview with Variety, Hatsura-Yavorska details her recent ordeal:
Can you tell me what exactly happened on April 5? Was it a complete surprise, or did you already have problems with the authorities?
Conducting searches and pressuring human rights defenders is something that happens regularly in our country. Several of my colleagues are already in jail, so in general, we were aware that this could happen to us as well. On April 5, three men ran up to us on the doorstep of our office and ordered us inside at gunpoint. They took away our phones and told us not to move. Then they invited the finance police investigators and brought in their witnesses.
We were denied the right to have a lawyer present and, on behalf of my colleague from social networks, they invited my deputy director to come to the office. When she did, thinking we were the ones who invited her, her phone was also taken away and she was denied a lawyer. Searches took place at the office and our respective homes (mine and my four other colleagues). After no criminal items were found, we were brought to the finance police for informal interrogations — that is, without a lawyer and without keeping the record of the minutes.
After these conversations, around 10 p.m., all five of us were taken to the investigative committee, where they issued detention orders for three days, on suspicion of committing a crime. We were taken to the detention center and held in cells without heating and without mattresses. Later, while we were there, we had further unlawful conversations without attorneys present and were put on administrative trial for “disobedience to the police”. By the decision of this court, my colleagues were sentenced to seven days of arrest.
I was told that the exhibition, dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and the struggles of patients and medical workers, was the reason for all this, but why was it perceived as problematic?
The actual theme of the exhibition “Machine is Breathing, and I Am Not” wasn’t really COVID-19. It was about medical professionals and the challenges they face in 2020 — including the fight against the pandemic when faced with the authorities’ silence and the violence against peaceful protesters. Both in 2020 and at this moment, the authorities are hiding accurate rates of morbidity and mortality, and they keep firing doctors for their public stance. As for the violence against civilians, the authorities seek to portray protesters as criminals and the use of force as justified. Discussing these issues publicly proved to be unacceptable.
What were you told after your arrest, and what is the status of the case now? Are there any specific charges?
My colleagues and I remain suspects in the criminal case of organizing group actions that violate public order and involve clear disobedience to legal demands of the representatives of the authorities. No charges have been brought. I am personally banned from leaving the country.
Your husband, Volodymyr Yavorskiy, was actually forced to leave the country. Why? Is there any chance of him returning now?
While I was in the detention center, there was a second search at my house, after which my husband was taken away for interrogation. During the interrogation, he was beaten up and asked for the passwords to the technical equipment and ordered to share any other information he might know. He was then told that he had 48 hours to leave the country with his entire family, for security reasons, and that he was banned from re-entering Belarus for 10 years. He was also warned that if he wouldn’t comply, he would be arrested on administrative charges and deported on his own, and since I was already in jail, our children would be placed in an orphanage. He has no chance of returning. Unfortunately, the Ukrainian embassy has not issued any statements in connection to this situation.
I can imagine it was already difficult to hold a festival like Watch Docs in Belarus before, with its focus on human rights. Why did you decide to do it and what issues have you been facing so far?
We have had our share of problems but they weren’t global and we have sought to overcome them. For example, in December 2020, we lost our main venue for screenings — one day before the opening of the festival. Before, there were informal conversations and warnings. But if we do nothing, nothing will change in our country for a very long time.
We organize this festival because every country needs such a platform, especially a country with a dictatorship. It is hard to say what the future holds, so we try not to make any predictions about the future of the festival. Maybe we will all be in prison, or maybe we will reach a breaking point in Belarus and start a new life in democracy? I hope some things will be clearer by the summer.
Would you say that the support of the film community after your arrest has made a difference? Or are you worried that it might happen again, once international attention turns to other matters?
Yes, the international reaction is very important. Even if the authorities don’t acknowledge it publicly, they still hear the noise and the Foreign Ministry doesn’t need it. So thanks a lot for the support, to all the colleagues. Unfortunately, the risk of indictment remains high, but it’s hard to keep international attention focused on such a situation. So at this point, I think the mission has been accomplished — we have been released without charges. Again, thank you very much for this help.