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“Case of columnists”: moral collision of Belarusian “experts"

Dmitry Alimkin, Yuri Pavlovets, Sergey Shiptenko

In its recent article, EADaily reported that those investigating the “case of pro-Russian columnists” in Belarus had refused to accept any proofs of their innocence. We mean Yuri Pavlovets, Sergey Shiptenko and Dmitry Alimkin, Belarusian journalists who wrote for EurAsia Daily, REGNUM and Lenta.ru.

All the three journalists are facing the charge of kindling racial, ethnic or religious strife. Pavlovets and Shiptenko are also suspected of illegal business activities. Investigator Yuri Matskevich has declined the defenders’ petition containing an independent expert opinion that the articles published by the journalists had no features of extremism. His reaction was natural as that opinion would have exposed the partiality of the official experts.

But how come that the official expert opinion is the weakest point of the prosecution? The journalists were arrested on the basis of an examination carried out on the request of the Information Ministry of Belarus. In Dec 2016, Deputy Information Minister Vladimir Matusevich was also the vice chairman of a republican commission for detecting elements of extremism in information products. Today, Matusevich is Director General of Belpost.

It was exactly he who controlled the examination and asked the Investigation Committee to institute criminal actions against the journalists.

It was really strange to see an ordinary Belarusian clerk suddenly showing such extraordinary zeal and undertaking responsibility for such a complex high-profile case. But was Matusevich aware what moral responsibility he was undertaking at the moment? Was he aware that he was condemning those people to years in jail and their families to suffering and pain? We can’t say if he was or not? But even if he was, he was unstoppable.

We venture to suggest that besides being zealous, Matusevich was also competent enough to detect “extremism” in the journalists’ articles. But we wonder where he might have acquired such competence from.

When asked by Shiptenko to provide proofs of that competence, Communication and Informatization Minister of Belarus Sergei Popkov said that he had no right to inquire into Matusevich’s private life! It turns out that the professional qualification of the vice chairman of a republican commission is a secret for the person who has become a victim of that qualification.

And who were the experts appointed by Matusevich? One of them was Alla Kirdun, Head of the Forensic Linguistics Department of the Scientific-Practical Center of the State Forensic Examination Committee of Belarus. The other one was Alesya Andreyeva. philologist, assistant professor at the Belarusian and Russian Languages Department of the Belarusian State University of Physical Culture. Andreyeva initialed the commission’s findings though not being its member.

As it turned out later, the findings could not be a basis for the arrest of the journalists. They were close for the defendants, their lawyers and their families for as many as seven months.

And when they were finally provided, it turned out that after the first examination Matskevich arranged one more examination with a view to either confirm or refute the initial findings. But who were those new experts? The selfsame Kirdun and Andreyeva! One more paradox of this case.

Neither professional nor moral aspects stopped those two experts from re-examining their own findings and confirming that there were features of extremism in the articles! After all, it would not be professional on their part to refute their own findings, would it? Had they done that, they would have gotten Matusevich into trouble – for one must know what one approves. So, it was impossible for them to admit that their initial findings were a mistake – a mistake that had sent the journalists to jail for months and had caused pain to their relatives and friends.

How much confident in own professionalism one must be for passing such a verdict! In Belarus, one cannot be 100% sure that a criminal case against a journalist is not politically motivated and well aware of this, they still carried on the case they started in Dec 2016… It seems that they did not know what they were doing!

In order to make the examination more convincing and impartial, Matskevich invited Galina Gatalskaya, assistant professor from the Advanced Training and Retraining Institute of the Belarusian State Pedagogical University. But nothing changed.

The defendants and their lawyers have refused to accept the findings and have adduced counter-findings by a group of independent experts, who are confident that there were no features of extremism in the articles. One of those experts is philologist and lawyer, professor Yelena Galyashina, who has detected no single phrase implying racial, ethnic or religious strife.

Expert from Latvia, member of the International Federation of Independent Experts Nikolay Gudanets is of the same opinion.

The Federal Supervision Agency for Information Technologies and Communications has also examined the articles written by Pavlovets, Shiptenko and Alimkin for EurAsia Daily, REGNUM and Lenta.ru and has found there nothing that is contrary to the federal law against extremism. The same is true for a group of independent Belarusian experts.

As you may see, we have two camps: internationally acclaimed independent experts and scientist, who say that the articles contain no extremism, and almost unknown but official experts claiming the opposite. Here we are dealing with a moral collision over the fates of people prosecuted for their political beliefs. One thing is clear: the official findings are the Achilles’ heel of the prosecutors. But will the Belarusian court confirm this?

Alexander Bendin (Belarus), Doctor of Historical Sciences, recipient of the Moscow and Kolomna Metropolitan Makariy (Bulgakov) academic award

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