Criminal Justice & the Rule of Law Surveillance & Privacy

Watching My Trial for Seditious Conspiracy

Katsiaryna Shmatsina
Thursday, June 20, 2024, 5:36 PM
To look at the charges against me, you’d think I was a Jan. 6 conspirator. I’m a think tank analyst.
Belarusian anti-Lukashenko protests in Minsk (Max Katz,, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Published by The Lawfare Institute
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I am on trial.

I don’t mean that in some metaphorical sense but quite literally. I am currently a criminal defendant, accused of attempting to seize power in an unconstitutional fashion, calling for actions aimed at causing harm to national security, incitement of hatred, and membership in an extremist organization.

No, I’m not a Jan. 6 defendant. 

My trial is taking place in the Minsk Regional Court in Belarus.

It is proceeding even though I have never been served with any notifications or court materials. The only people who have access to my case, besides the prosecutor and the judge, are the so-called pro bono lawyers assigned by the state to represent our interests. I have never met my lawyers. 

I can only imagine how eager they must be to protect us. None of them responded to calls or emails from me and my co-defendants. Some of these advocates, acolytes of Themis no doubt, must truly be super-lawyers; they specialize not just in criminal law but also, for example, real estate or family law. I can only imagine how they manage to grasp all the concepts in these diverse fields at once. I am grateful to have them on my side during this ordeal. I’m sure I am in good hands.

That said, my colleagues and I found out about the date of our trial by chance—by our own routine monitoring of court websites. The trial is supposedly open to the public, but we couldn’t find volunteers to attend it—even among human rights groups. Would-be attendees had good reason to fear intimidation by the police. Given that all of the current defendants are safe and abroad, it is simply not worth putting at risk remaining courageous individuals still active in the country.

Many of the real lawyers—those who are not showpieces of the regime but actually try to represent the interests of their clients in politically motivated cases—have lost their law licenses. Some find themselves in prison, alongside their clients. Many have left the country.

Which brings me to another small matter one should understand about my trial: I’m not there either. I am currently living in Northern Virginia.

My trial is the largest trial in absentia in Belarus so far. There are 20 of us on the list of defendants: scholars, journalists, and some opposition politicians. The prosecution has somehow dumped all of us into one group, claiming that we are an extremist cabal plotting to overthrow the “legitimate government” in Belarus.

This is flattering. The assumption that a motley group of think tankers and public intellectuals would actually be able to come to a consensus regarding what policy should be—let alone organize a seditious conspiracy—gives us a lot of undue credit. There’s also the small detail that some of us in the group did not even know each other before the charges were announced.

I am told there is a hearing in my case tomorrow, at which I might be sentenced to 12 or more years in prison: Article 357, “conspiracy to seize power,” alone has a sentence range anywhere between eight years and capital punishment. Lucky for us, we are being charged with paragraph 1 of the article, which carries a maximum sentence of just 12 years. Or maybe not. 

So who is this great threat to the Belarusian republic—this Katsiaryna Shmatsina? She is a 32-year-old Belarusian foreign policy analyst, who was trying to do her job and use open sources for research. Her work was similar to the typical work of a D.C. think tanker.

But the policy world, at least if it remotely touches politics, is quite a different beast in Belarus than it is here. Of the 20 defendants in her case, all currently reside abroad. She is in the Washington area waiting for her application for political asylum to come through. She is not allowed to work, having not yet been granted a work permit. But she is way better off than she would have been had she stayed in Minsk and faced trial in person. What happened to those who didn’t leave? According to Viasna, Belarus’s oldest human rights group, the overall number of political prisoners is at least 1,410. The chairman of Viasna, Ales Bialiatski, who is also a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, is now behind bars as well. Military analyst Yahor Lebiadok received a five-year sentence for commenting to the independent media on the role of Belarus in Russia’s war on Ukraine. Yahor is one of those courageous people who chose to stay at home and continue his work, no matter the consequences to him. And those consequences have been severe.

There are no more independent (non-pro-regime) journalists or scholars left in Belarus. Those who have not fled are in prison.

Your great threat to national security is not the prison type, and her appetite for being tortured and murdered is, let’s just say, limited. She knew she did not have the stamina to go through dark places like a prison in the basement of the KGB. (Believe it or not, in Belarus, the internal security institution is still called the KGB.) Vital Shkliarau, a former Obama campaign consultant and a  Belarusian who now has American citizenship, went through it in 2020. After his release, he did not share much—just that he had many thoughts when being escorted through the basement and past the dirty room where capital punishment is carried out. He saw rats running around, and puddles when it was raining outside. Vital was released upon the call of then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenka.

Your national security threat is not that important. She’s not a U.S. citizen, and she didn’t work in the White House. No one is going to call Lukashenka to drag her out of prison, so when assessing her risks, she chose flight.

Your great threat to national security was born and raised in Minsk. She went to law school at the Belarusian State University, allegedly the top university in the country. Ironically, she was a straight-A student in criminal law, the better, apparently, to plot against her government.

Some of her former professors now serve on an advisory council to the government, on which they advocated toughening the penalty for “extremism,” with which she is now charged.

She is not the only lawyer-turned-criminal at her alma mater. Maksim Znak, an alumnus and a lawyer who supported pro-democratic opposition politicians, is now behind bars for 10 years. Her former professor of ethics, Yaraslau Kot, was detained on the fabricated grounds of cursing in public and offending police officers. A Yale alumnus, Kot was targeted for creating an independent, non-pro-governmental labor union at the university.

Our school is perhaps an illustration of the broader divide in Belarusian society: those who aspire to see Belarus as a pluralistic democracy and those who support the authoritarian status quo. Your threat to national security and insurrectionist suffered through obligatory classes wherein professors would cite Lenin and admire the tribunals of the Soviet secret police troikas as an example of efficient justice.

Your threat to national security had a different view on the Stalinist repressions. In her family, memories were preserved. Memories of how her great-grandparents stored an emergency backpack with bread and clothes under the bed in case of arrest. Memories of how people were dragged from their homes at night and oftentimes did not come back. Memories of how many Belarusian intellectuals ended up in Kurapaty and other mass execution sites around Minsk. Lukashenka, just like the Soviets before him, denies that such executions took place and even ordered the demolition of the crosses activists had put up to commemorate the victims. But we remembered.

How did she become a dissident? Being active in civic life was always a part of daily life. She practiced corporate law in a law firm and yet also volunteered in a pro-democratic opposition party, as well as for nonprofits that aimed to preserve Belarusian culture and language. These groups thus opposed the Lukashenka regime’s russification efforts.

At work, she would interact with government agencies and attend legal conferences where the speakers would robotically repeat the fanatical slogan that “our president is always right.” They would assert that the growing number of presidential decrees superseding existing laws posed no problem whatsoever. Who needs a parliament and a debate anyway? She would read treaties of the Eurasian economic union—the economic treaties binding Belarus to Russia economically—to spot opportunities for clients to expand their businesses, yet she would see in them yet another move by the Kremlin to keep the “near abroad” states in its orbit of influence.

So eventually, she stopped living a double life and made the decision to shift to the think tank world to draw attention to matters that, she believed, were truly meaningful: formulating solutions for a balanced foreign policy and researching the scope of Vladimir Putin’s ambitions in the neighborhood.

As a fellow at the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies, she did the best she could: She stood on her values and spoke her truth, striving for quality research. Sometimes it was necessary to say uncomfortable things. For instance, during the normalization of relations between Lukashenka and the West, some European diplomats shook hands with him and his officials, ignoring human rights violations and persecution faced by the opposition. She was among those inconvenient voices at the panel discussions, when European diplomats attended events organized by pro-regime analysts and emphasized that perhaps we should focus more on developing economic and technical cooperation. She would say, “Wait a minute, this is the same regime that violently dispersed protests in 2006 and 2010, and the same regime that stood behind the forced disappearance of Lukashenka’s rivals in the 1990s.”

Working independently, not tied to the regime, was a separate adventure. It required being cautious. Something as simple as receiving an honorarium for an op-ed was a conundrum: Is it safe to just wire the money to a Belarusian account? When submitting a tax declaration, she worried not about the numbers or complying with the tax rules. She worried that listing income from a visiting fellowship in Berlin (which is part of the “evil West”) would trigger unwanted attention from the KGB.

The presidential elections in 2020 were a turning point: Belarus plunged into a political crisis that lasts to this day. For your threat to national security and her colleagues, it meant that we were no longer safe. Previously the authorities targeted opposition politicians or protesters, but political analysts were more or less safe. We knew our work was monitored, but the police would not break into our houses and arrest us. In 2020, the level of protest raised to such an unprecedented level that there was a good chance the power vertical would collapse. At that point, the regime began targeting anyone within reach.

During the protests, authorities blocked the internet. This was a  tactic used at least since 2010. The team of the since-murdered Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prepared for this scenario and asked your threat to national security to record commentaries on Belarusian elections ahead of the vote day. She was swamped with work, writing commentaries for the Kennan Institute and the German Marshall Fund. She was speaking on Euronews and BBC radio. When she finally had time to scroll a newsfeed, she was shocked by the news of arrests of people she knew: Radio Liberty observer Vital Tsyhankou had a gun pressed to his temple as police were chasing him and his wife; Belsat journalist Alena Dubovik was kicked in the stomach so hard it induced internal bleeding; and one colleague’s entire family was taken into custody

She had the persistent feeling that she was being watched and could be next. One foreign colleague was detained at the airport and interrogated, among other things, about why he was planning to meet with her, as scheduled on his Google calendar. The night before she left, she chose not to stay at home, grabbed one carry-on bag, one pair of shoes, and booked the next available flight.

She was able to leave without problems. Yet a few months later, human rights defenders and journalists were arrested and charged criminally—including with attempting to leave the country or just upon arrival. In retrospect, she considers herself lucky to have left during what turned out to be a limited time window in which the special services thought that it is okay to let the “Fifth column” flee and thus cause less trouble.

For about three years, she lived in Europe, where she continued both her independent research and also, at times, consulted with Belarusian pro-democratic politicians in exile. Most recently she moved to Northern Virginia, having enrolled in a Ph.D. program at Virginia Tech. Once in a while, she receives warnings from insiders that, for example, she is on a  blacklist at the Belarusian embassies abroad, as well as on the detention list at the Belarusian border, should she decide to come back.

Sometimes, she wondered whether she was crazy and paranoid, and she knew that when she told her story to others, it came off sounding that way. After all, nothing had happened to her, right? She thinks she was being followed. And she fled, but she was never arrested. Is she sure it wasn’t all in her head?

So when she heard about the criminal charges against her, she actually felt an ironic sense of relief: Finally, there was some clarity. She is no longer left guessing about whether she was too cautious when assessing her risks. When a murderous authoritarian regime is actually out to get you, it’s not paranoia to take precautions. It’s wisdom. She later learned that she is on the wanted list in Russia too. She has no idea why exactly she got this badge of honor. Perhaps it’s because of her views on Russia’s war, voiced before the U.S. Helsinki Commission, or perhaps it’s a result of a podcast she runs on Russian politics together with her notorious co-host, Darth Putin KGB.

This whole cat-and-mouse dissident game sounds darkly comical up to a point. But it’s funny only up to the point where it isn’t.

Last week, your threat to national security received the news that her grandmother had passed away in Minsk. 

This was not the first time she was unable to say a final goodbye to a loved one, and she has no idea when she will be able to visit her hometown. For the past six months, she had to take a break from her doctoral program, as her asylum application required attention. Fighting for a cause comes with a price, whether it’s health consequences, fatigue, or something more severe. At times, she makes peace with the fact that peers who weren’t burdened with these struggles may appear more accomplished in their careers.

And yet she cherishes her journey. For a rebellious and idealistic soul, the experience has been precious.

That’s who your threat to national security is. 

And that is also my message to the judge, Uladzimir Areshka, who is among those who meted out politically motivated sentences. (This judge sentenced Eduard Babaryka, the son of a 2020 presidential race front-runner, Viktar Babaryka, to eight years. He was put in jail as he was the head of his father’s campaign.) And prosecutors—whose names I do not know and who have not asked me to account for my conduct under any process that a reasonable person would recognize as a real trial—feel free to determine the sentence as you see fit. I won’t be there to serve it.

Katsiaryna Shmatsina is a Belarusian expert specializing in Eurasian politics and security. She serves as a Rethink.CEE Fellow at the German Marshall Fund and is currently pursuing her doctoral degree at Virginia Tech in Washington, D.C.

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