UPDATE: Watch Docs Belarus director and activist Tatsiana Hatsura-Yavorska, who was arrested in Minsk on April 5, has been released from prison.
Hatsura-Yavorska was arrested alongside other human rights defenders Natallya Trenina, Yuliya Semenchanka, Hanna Sakalouskaya and Volha Shapakouskaya.
The arrest reportedly followed a COVID-19 exhibition co-organized by Hatsura-Yavorska. Entitled “Machine is Breathing, and I Am Not,” the exhibit focused on the struggles of local health workers and their patients amid the COVID-19 crisis. A number of international festivals and human rights groups protested the arrests earlier this week.
It’s believed the festival director’s husband, Volodymyr Yavorskiy, who is Ukrainian, was also forced to leave the country following his wife’s arrest.
“The arrest of Tanya is a classic piece of shameless brutality by the Belarusian authorities which has become the norm since the protests first started in August 2020,” European Film Academy chairman and film producer Mike Downey tells Variety, adding that president Alexander Lukashenko’s “re-election” has brought about unprecedented tensions across the country, particularly towards the artistic community. Lukashenko has been in power since 1994.
“Tanya has made a major contribution to freedom of expression in Belarus and now her freedom of expression has not only been taken away, she has fallen victim to trumped up criminal charges that are nothing short of farcical. I know that I can speak on behalf of the European Film Academy, its president Agnieszka Holland and director Matthijs Wouter Knol in demanding an end to the repression of cultural workers in Belarus and the immediate release of Tanya Hatsura-Yavorska from jail,” continues Downey, who is also a founding board member of the International Coalition for Filmmakers at Risk.
After Hatsura-Yavorskaya’s apartment was searched and its technical equipment confiscated, Trenina, Semenchanka and Sakalouskaya were sentenced to seven days of detention, while Shapakouskaya was released following the payment of a fine.
However, Hatsura-Yavorskaya remains detained as a suspect in a criminal case, allegedly accused of “raising money for protests.” Now, in an open letter published by The Human Rights Film Network, film festivals and associations around the world are demanding justice.
A constantly updating list of signees includes the likes of Cannes, Rotterdam, Sundance, Berlin and Karlovy Vary film festivals, as well as the European Film Promotion, European Women’s Audiovisual Network and European Film Academy. Tadeusz Strączek of Watch Docs Poland has told Variety that around 160 festivals, networks and organizations have so far signed the document.
“This list continues to grow with every passing moment of her absence, as does our alarm for all those whose freedom could be compromised by the values their work might represent. I am very concerned for Tanya’s wellbeing and I know this is shared by my colleagues,” says Brigid O’Shea, co-founder of the Documentary Association of Europe, who visited Belarusian festival in 2019.
“I was excited as there is a new emerging film talent of dedicated and hard-working young people in Belarus. I was eager to meet them on their home territory. Our network sincerely wishes Tanya can be released back to her family, friends and colleagues as quickly as possible.”
Maciej Nowicki, deputy president of the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights and director of Watch Docs Poland, tells Variety: “So often we hear slogans about cinema as a language that connects people or about this belief in the importance of social documentary filmmaking, and very rarely we can really experience it. In Minsk, thanks to Tanya and her friends, I saw just that.”
As noted by Nowicki, leading Belarusian human rights groups have recognized Tanya as a prisoner of conscience. According to them, as of April 13, she is one of 354 political prisoners in Belarus.