On 3 December 2021, an unfair and politically motivated sentence was passed to Volha Zalatar, a practising Catholic believer, mother of five young children and a member of the volunteer movement.
The trial of the believer took place at the Minsk City Court (judge Anastasiya Papko) from 15 November to 3 December 2021. Zalatar was accused of creating an extremist group (art. 361-1 of the Criminal Code); of organisation and preparation of actions grossly violating public order, or actively participating in them, as well as training in such actions (parts 1 and 2 of art. 342 of the Criminal Code); and of complicity in such actions (part 1 of art. 16 of the Criminal Code).
The state prosecutor, Zhanna Baranava, requested five years in prison for the accused.
Zalatar did not admit guilt under any of the articles incriminated to her. Her guilt was not proven nor could it. By the “extremist group” allegedly created and managed by Zalatar, the prosecution meant the @dze.chat Telegram catalogue and the dze.chat website for neighbourhood chats. These initiatives were used for organising concerts and tea parties in Belarusian neighbourhoods. A participant of the dze.chat project, blogger Anton Motolko, made a statement in which he explained that Volha Zalatar had never taken part in managing the dze.chat website; she did not volunteer for the project nor even communicated personally with the project management team.
Volha Zalatar was sentenced to four years of general regime prison despite the lack of incriminating evidence, the absurd nature of the charges, as well as the fact of being a mother of five children – it itself a significant circumstance which should have been taken into account for selecting both preventive measures and a type of punishment.
Zalatar was detained on 18 March 2021 and held in a pre-trial detention centre (SIZO) no. 1 in Minsk. Seventy Catholic priests from Belarus petitioned the Investigative Committee to end the criminal prosecution against the faithful. Two priests, incl. Alaksandr Faminykh, Zalatar’s parish priest, submitted a surety for changing the measure of restraint.
Zalatar was tortured by officers of the Ministry of Internal Affairs Department for Combating Organised Crime and Corruption, GUBOPiK, during her arrest and interrogations. On several occasions during the investigation, the believer claimed that in order to “knock out” the passwords to access her phone the officers beat her on the head, strangled her, threw her to the floor and stood on her with their feet. Zalatar’s lawyer, Andrey Machalau, testified that he personally witnessed the signs of torture on the woman’s body: bruises on arms, neck and buttocks. Following the allegation of torture, the lawyer’s license was annulled. At the trial, it transpired that on 20 April, the Investigative Committee refused to initiate a criminal investigation of abuse of office by the GUBOPiK employees due to the absence of crime. According to the Investigative Committee, “Zalatar’s claims about bodily harm inflicted to her do not correspond to reality since it was inflicted before her detention.”
The detention centre administration and investigating authorities created obstructions for Zalatar to obtain a prayer book and for being seen by a priest. Zalatar made several requests for a pastoral visit, but the Investigative Committee consistently rejected them. On 4 May 2021, the Christian Vision Group made a special statement protesting the obstacles to the pastoral visit. On 5 May 2021, the Christian Vision Group appealed to the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Belarus and the Apostolic Nunciature in the Republic of Belarus to interfere in resolving the situation. Only on 2 June 2021, the Apostolic Nuncio in Belarus, Archbishop Ante Jozić, was allowed to visit the imprisoned believer in the pre-trial detention centre.
The Christian Vision Group expresses solidarity with Volha Zalatar and with her Christian and civic commitments. Her final speech at the court hearing on 2 December 2021 was a wonderful testimony of the Christian faith. Zalatar stated that all her words and actions were motivated by nothing but her belief, the desire to follow the commandments of God and make the world be like the Kingdom of Heaven; by love for people and hate of lies and violence. In addressing the entire Belarusian society, she called for mutual repentance and forgiveness as the only way out of the current political crisis in the country.
We share Zalatar’s belief that the restoration of peace in Belarus is possible only through active repentance, that is, after the end of persecution and terror and the full restoration of justice. One of the examples of such restoration of peace must be the early release and full exoneration of Zalatar – a political prisoner and mother of five children.
We strongly condemn the unfair sentence and demand that all persecution against Zalatar is stopped. Her words and actions are the actions of a believing Christian person; they are an example of a Christian witness in society.
We appeal to the Holy Father Pope Francis, in the name of the Mother of God Patroness of Families whose title Volha Zalatar’s parish has, to step in advocacy for the believer and mother of five children who earned great authority among the clergy and laity of the Catholic Church in Belarus as an example of the Christian life and adherence to the Christian conscience. The Holy See should use all possible diplomatic means to free and exonerate Volha Zalatar.
We call on the Belarusian and world Christian community to solidarity with Volha Zalatar and her family, as well as all people of faith and non-believers imprisoned for political reasons in Belarus.