Irina Khalip, Novaya Gazeta’s correspondent in Belarus, has been convicted of “participating in group actions in gross violation of public law and order” and has been sentenced to two years imprisonment, suspended for two years. Sergey Martselov, head of presidential candidate Nikolai Statkevich’s campaign headquarters, got the same sentence. The third accused in the trial, co-chairman of the Belorussian Christian Democracy Party, Pavel Severinets, was sentenced to three years of restricted freedom without being sent to a correctional institution (so-called “chemistry”).
The reading out of the sentence took seven minutes. Unlike other opposition politicians, Irina’s case did not refer to “rioting crowds united into a single destructive force”, armed resistance to the police, inflicting “physical pain” on OMON security police or use of ice-picks. The main charge against her was disobedience to the authorities, obstruction of the work of law enforcement bodies and “inciting the crowd by personal example”. Inciting to what? To stepp off the pavement illegally on to the road. This seemed to be the main point the prosecutor was trying to prove during the three-day trial.
Even so, those present in the courtroom were please by the sentence. The article on “participation in group actions” carries up to three years imprisonment. “Political” verdicts have no connection with legal guilt, so are unpredictable from the point of view of the law.
The sentences make sense if one proceeds from a different logic that has nothing to do with legal logic. A two-year suspended sentence for Sergey Martselev, who pleaded guilty, is a sign that the authorities do not consider him dangerous. Three years of “chemistry” for Pavel Severinets means his isolation from political life. After a previous similar accusation, the young member of the opposition was sent to fell trees in a remote village. Upon his return, he was back in politics. It looks as if a two-year suspension for Irina is an attempt to force her to stop writing.
Under Belorussian law, the two-year sentence will be lifted if Irina does not break the law during the next two years. All this time, she has to stay in Belarus, should not leave Minsk for more than a month at a time, should register every two weeks with the police precinct and should be at home every day after 22:00 hours. In two years’ time, Irina will face another trial, which will decide whether she has behaved well enough and might be considered to be a law abiding citizen. “Who in this country can describe an opposition journalist as law abiding?”, comments Irina.
In line with the same logic, the sentences passed during all the other trials that have been going on since early March are understandable. Russian citizens Ivan Gaponov and Artyom Breus, for whom the Russian embassy put in a word, got off lightly (a $3500 fine). But young activists and people who attended the 19 December rally by chance received unwarranted prison sentences of three to four years. These sentences, the opposition is convinced, were to send a message to society: “Do not attend rallies. Political leaders will be acquitted, given suspended sentences or exchanged for Western loans, while you and your children will remain in jail.”
“You think you will be the only people celebrating today? We too will celebrate”, KGB officers told Irina before she left.
During the three months that Irina was under house arrest, they kept a 24/7 vigil at her flat: they prevented her from opening the door or answering the phone, handing over every 24 hours, sleeping on the sofa in the library; in the morning they wore their track suits and watched news on television, which made the whole family angry. After they left, there were books on the library table that the KGB officers had been reading: Nabokov’s “Mashenka”, stories by Limonov and “The Philosophy of Hatred” by Andre Glucksmann (a prominent anarchist). They left as soon as the sentence was announced to Irina. On the doorstep, they said goodbye to Irina’s four-year-old son Danka: they held out their hands and wished him luck. Danka, who was sure that the “KGB uncles” had been in his home to protect them, shook the proffered hands with a sense of importance.
Danka was expecting his mother, who had “gone to see a doctor”. All these months they had been lying to him that his mother was sick and the doctor forbade her to leave home and receive friends. On Monday, the doctor said she had recovered.
According to the legend intended for the child, dad was on a business trip in the Radiator Springs town from the animated cartoon Tachka. He was buying gifts for Danka and sending occasional letters. One letter, with a tale for Danka, arrived on his fourth birthday: it was a Sunday, the day after his father’s sentence and the day before his mother’s indictment.
In general, it had been a good birthday party for Danka: in the morning, friends gathered beneath the windows of Irina’s flat forming themselves into the shape of a human heart. Two women came to the park near Irina’s home, where Danka was being walked by his grandmothers and grandfathers, and blushingly presented Danka with a toy railway. “Thank you for your children”, they told the grandmothers.
Irina was set free in the courtroom. As she emerged, there was applause and flash photographs were taken. Dozens of journalists from Russia, Poland, Germany and the Baltic countries were gathered in the hall. Throughout the day, Irina’s mother’s telephone rang every five minutes (Irina’s mobile phone was taken away from her when she was arrested): foreign journalists, Belorussian colleagues and friends who had left the country were calling. The sentences passed on Khalip and Sannikov were promptly condemned by the President of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, by the European Parliament, the Helsinki Committee, Amnesty International, the US, Italian and French Governments.
But only a few friends gathered at Irina’s home. A head count revealed that all the others had either left the country or were in pretrial detention or in court: trials of thirteen members of the opposition continue in Minsk.