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12 Years in Prison for Running a Telegram Channel: The Case of 24-Year-Old Belarusian Yana Pinchuk

Jan 24 2022

Belarusian authorities demand Russia to extradite Yana Pinchuk arrested in St. Petersburg. She is charged with running “extremist” Telegram social media channels.

Who is Yana Pinchuk?

Yana Pinchuk was born on June 28, 1997 in Belarus. Until 2018, she lived in Vitebsk, then moved to the Russian Federation, where she has lived for the past 4 years.

Case Background

On November 1, 2021 Yana was detained in St. Petersburg at the request of the Belarusian authorities. She was charged with inciting hatred against Belarusian police officers, which carries a sentence of up to 12 years in prison, and with organizing an extremist entity, which carries a sentence of up to seven years in prison.

According to Belarusian prosecutors, Pinchuk was one of the administrators of the Telegram channel Vitebsk 97%, declared extremist by the Belarus authorities in March 2021.

On November 3, 2021 the Vasileostrovsky district court in St. Petersburg remanded Pinchuk in custody.

Subsequently, the Belarus authorities asked Russia to extradite her. Pinchuk herself requested a refugee status.

Full Description of the Case

According to the Belarusian investigative authorities, Yana Pinchuk, the administrator of the Telegram channel “Vitebsk 97%”, through the account Princess Leia, “acting jointly and in coordination with other unidentified persons by prior agreement in a group, with the intent of each covered actions of another member of the group”, from September 23, 2020 to December 7, 2020, “in order to incite other social hatred and discord on the basis of another social identity”, posted in the channel “text messages that contain negative information about a group of persons united on the basis of affiliation with law enforcement officers, public authorities and other groups of persons united on other social grounds, as well as incitement in the form of a proposal to actions aimed at causing harm to a group of persons united on the basis of affiliation with police officers.”

These actions were qualified by the Belarusian investigative authorities under part 3 of article 130 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus, in connection with which a criminal case was brought on April 23, 2021.

Pinchuk is also charged for  “posting texts relating to extremist materials on the same channel in order to carry out extremist activities” during the period from September 23, 2020 to May 3, 2021 and at the same time heading a Telegram channel “Vitebsk 97%”, which is an extremist formation” (the channel was declared extremist in March 2021 by a court decision). These actions were further qualified under part 1 of article 361.1 of the Criminal Code, in connection with which Vitebsk investigators opened another criminal case against Pinchuk on May 3, 2021.

On April 23, 2021 a joint criminal case under part 3 of article 130 and part 1 of article 361.1 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus was opened. On May 5, 2021, Lieutenant Colonel Dashkevich, Officer of the Vitebsk City Department of the Investigative Committee of the Republic of Belarus, ordered to bring Yana Pinchuk as an accused in the combined criminal case and put her on the wanted list.

On September 28, 2021, the investigating authorities of Belarus issued an arrest order for Pinchuk, which was approved by the prosecutor of Vitebsk A. Shklyarevskiy on October 6, 2021.

Following her detention on 1 November 2021, the Vasileostrovsky district prosecutor’s office petitioned the court for remand in custody as a preventive measure against her.

Judge E. Leonova of the Vasileostrovsky District Court of St. Petersburg granted the petition on November 3, 2021.

The court referred to the fact that the Belarusian legislation stipulated a punishment of more than a year’s imprisonment for the alleged crimes, while the corresponding article 280 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation— up to five years’ imprisonment, which, in accordance with Article 56 of the Convention on Legal Assistance and Legal Relations in Civil, Family and Criminal Cases and part 1 of Article 462 of the Criminal Procedure Code of the Russian Federation, gives grounds to consider possible the extradition of a foreign national to the country that requests his extradition.

In its ruling, the court agreed with the arguments of the prosecutor’s office that, being at large, Pinchuk could abscond from the law enforcement authorities, had no permanent residence on the territory of the Russian Federation, and the adoption of a non-custodial preventive measure would not ensure the implementation of the obligations assumed by the Russian Federation to enable the extradition of Pinchuk to the law enforcement authorities of Belarus.

The court rejected Pinchuk’s application for a preventive measure in the form of prohibition of certain actions in connection with the legality of her stay in Russia, her residence registration, stable social connections and chronic diseases, as well as the absence of an official request for her extradition to Belarus at that time.

Pinchuk herself testifed in court that she had not committed the alleged crimes, and that she had learned about the charges against her only after her detention. After her placement in the pre-trial detention facility, Yana Pinchuk applied for the status of refugee.

On December 8, 2021, the Investigative Committee of the Republic of Belarus officially requested the Russian authorities to extradite Pinchuk.

Yana Pinchuk herself does not deny that she was a moderator of the Telegram channel, but claims that she withdrew her authority prior to the channel being recognized as extremist in the Republic of Belarus and emphasizes that she only posted in the chat room reposts about the place and time of meetings and about helping the detainees.

On December 10,  2021, the Vasileostrovsky District Court of St. Petersburg extended the term of Pinchuk’s detention until April 30, 2022.

The ruling to keep Pinchuk in detention was made by Judge Elena Leonova of the Vasileostrovsky District Court at the request of Acting Prosecutor of the Vasileostrovsky District V. Derevyanko.

What Punishment is Yana Pinchuk Facing in Her Homeland?

  • Part 3 of Article 130 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus – incitement of racial, national, religious or other social enmity or discord, committed by a group of persons, or resulting by negligence in human death or other severe consequences. The punishment is imprisonment for a term of 5 to 12 years.
  • Article 188 of the Criminal Code – slander. is punished by a fine, correctional work for up to 2 years, arrest or restriction of freedom for up to 3 years, or imprisonment for the same term.
  • Part 3 of Article 203-1 of the Criminal Code – unlawful acts in relation to personal data of another person. Punishable by restraint of liberty for up to 5 years or imprisonment for the same period with a fine.
  • Part 3 of Article 361 of the Criminal Code – calls for seizure of state power, violent change of the constitutional system of the Republic of Belarus with the use of the Internet. Punishable by imprisonment for a term of two to seven years.
  • Under article 361-1, paragraphs 1 and 2, of the Criminal Code, repeated establishment and leadership of an extremist group working to rehabilitate Nazism. Is punished by restriction of freedom for the term from 3 up to 5 years or imprisonment from 6 up to 10 years.

Why Does The Memorial Center Recognize Yana Pinchuk as a Political Prisoner?

In accordance with international guidelines, Memorial Human Rights Centre (MHRC) considers Yana Pinchuk, a Belarusian national who lives in Russia, a political prisoner. MHRC believes her prosecution is solely related to her political views and her exercise of the right to freedom of expression and consider the criminal case against her politically motivated.

«Having studied the available case materials, we have concluded that the prosecution of Yana Pinchuk is politically motivated and unlawful. After the presidential elections in Belarus in August 2020, the results of which were not recognized by most European countries, the United States and Canada, the Belarus authorities launched a massive crackdown on opposition in the country.

According to Belarus human rights activists, there are already more than 900 political prisoners in the country. Neither the known grounds for politically motivated charges nor the criminal prosecution procedures meet the minimum standards for fair trial or human rights in general.

We have no grounds to expect that the Belarus authorities will uphold the rights of Yana Pinchuk in the event of her extradition. Therefore, we believe that Russia should reject the request to extradite Pinchuk and should grant her refugee status.

We believe there are no grounds for holding Pinchuk in custody. The case materials available to us do not contain information about the specific reasons for the charges. They contain no evidence of incitement to illegal actions published on the Telegram channel. Pinchuk herself claims she stopped being an administrator of the channel before it was declared extremist.

We demand the immediate release of Yana Pinchuk. We demand that the Russian authorities comply with their international obligations under the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. The Russian authorities must reject the request to extradite Pinchuk to Belarus and she must be granted temporary asylum.», — the statement published on the website of Memorial Human Rights Centre reads.

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