It is 2010 and journalist Iryna Khalip is sitting at a press conference in Minsk, Belarus, where incumbent president Alexander Lukashenko - who has held office since 1994 – is taking questions in advance of the presidential election later in the year.
“I was asking very tough questions,” recalls Khalip. “I asked him about the fate of [people who had been] abducted and killed. I explained that the whole world knew it was his initiative to eliminate the opposition.
“He tried to be nice. He told me, ‘Iryna, I am good. I am a good guy. Believe me. You are free. You are sitting here and you can do everything you want to do.’
“But I know that he remembered everything. Every word. After some years, he took a chance for revenge, because my arrest and all [of] this nightmare, I am sure it was about personal revenge.”
Khalip is a Belarusian journalist and editor of the Minsk bureau of Novaya Gazeta, one of the last independent media organisations in Vladimir Putin's Russia. She has been the recipient of several awards for her work in the fields of journalism and human rights.
In Dublin, ahead of Day of the Imprisoned Writer, an event organised by Front Line Defenders in association with Irish PEN and the Dublin Book Festival, she talks to The Irish Times about her experiences as a journalist in Belarus under Lukashenko’s rule.
She says Lukashenko’s “personal revenge” against her is because he “hates independent people, hates those who aren’t afraid of him, and hates those who can speak and write openly”.
She also says that the attacks on her family were motivated by how “bankrupt” Lukashenko’s own personal life is, as his wife refused to move to Minsk when he came to power. “He couldn’t forgive us for being happy, for loving each other, and for having a son grow up with two parents,” she says. “Lukashenko did his best to eliminate our family.”
Those efforts involved the bugging of her phone, cyber attacks, death threats, and incarceration. “The KGB follow me very openly,” she says. “Some years ago I was investigating the relationship between Lukashenko, the Belarusian KGB, and Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky.
“An article was written and sent to my Moscow office. Ten minutes [later] I received a letter from an unknown email address signed ‘Boris Berezovsky’. It read, ‘Darling, if this article is published, you will meet Anna Politkovskaya that same day.’ Politkovskaya was my colleague from Novaya Gazeta who was killed in 2006.
“The next day I was called from an unknown number saying, ‘You were warned the last day. You will be killed tomorrow bitch.’ The same day I received a telegram allegedly sent from Moscow with references to conversations I had had on my phone.
“ It was really frightening but it was additional proof that when you don’t give in you become stronger. The article was published and after that they could do nothing.”
There have been several journalists killed in Belarus since Lukashenko came to power. “My colleague Dzmitry Zavadski was abducted and killed in 2000,” says Khalip. “My colleague and very good friend Aleh Byabenin was the founder of the popular website charter97.org. He was found hanged in his summer cottage in 2010. To be a journalist in Belarus is very dangerous.”
On December 19th, 2010, the day of the presidential election, Khalip was arrested and beaten along with her husband Andrei Sannikov, who was running against Lukashenko in the election. She would ultimately be held under house arrest for two years. "It was absolute torture," she says.
“Two KGB guards lived in my apartment with me and my young son. They sat in the same room with me. They followed me everywhere. I was not even allowed to approach the windows. They would come into my bedroom every night just to make sure I was still there.
“They were horrible guys. They were young so they were not pressed to work for the KGB. It was their choice. They tried to tell me I was an enemy of Belarus, that I was undeserving of my life in my country, and that it was such an honour for them to fight against criminals [like] me.
“I tried to be calm and peaceful because I desperately wanted to prevent my little son from enduring another psychological trauma. He was three-years-old and had already been through much more than he could handle. I was peaceful but sometimes it was really hard.”
In terms of life for the ordinary citizens of Belarus, Khalip likens their existence to that of those under Soviet rule. “If you are obedient, if you are not interested in the political situation, if you stay away from the oppositional websites, if you stay away from opposition rallies, if you don’t speak about the political situation, then you can feel enough comfort,” she says.