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Gone without a trace How ‘Meduza’ journalist Maxim Solopov was beaten and arrested in Minsk before he disappeared

Source: Meduza

Meduza special correspondent Maxim Solopov is one of four Russian journalists who were jailed in Minsk on Sunday night, August 9. Unlike his three colleagues, however, Solopov is still missing. He was in Belarus to cover Sunday’s presidential election and related events. The last time he was in contact with Meduza’s newsroom was around 1 a.m. on August 10. Eyewitnesses say he ended up in a crowd that was violently dispersed by riot police, who attacked him and allegedly arrested him, though Belarusian officials have since been unable to locate him. Meduza demands to know where our colleague is. In the text below, we explain what preceded Maxim Solopov’s arrest and how our search for him continues.

Journalists who came to Minsk to report on the Belarusian presidential election learned late on Sunday, after the votes were counted, that protests were beginning throughout the capital. Meduza special correspondent Maxim Solopov dressed for an evening outdoors, throwing on a sweater, sneakers, and sand-colored pants with large cargo pockets. That’s the description his wife, Alina, gave Meduza. “At 11:52 a.m. [on Sunday], he wrote that he was home for now. At 12:50, we talked again about this and that. He didn’t contact me again,” Alina recalls.

Solopov spent the rest of the day, until late Sunday evening, at the campaign headquarters of opposition frontrunner Svetlana Tikhanovskya (Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya), who would refuse the next day to recognize the official election results, which indicate a landslide, albeit highly questionable, victory for long-time incumbent President Alexander Lukashenko (Alyaksandr Lukashenka). “At her press conference, Tikhanovskaya announced data from three polling stations in Minsk where she won,” Solopov reported to Meduza’s newsroom. 

Throughout the day on August 9, Solopov remained in regular contact with colleagues in Moscow and Riga. “We had concerns that election day might get rough, so there was an agreement with Maxim about regular check-in calls,” says Tatiana Lysova, Meduza’s Moscow bureau chief. “Starting at 8:30 p.m., we were in touch every 30 minutes.”

As Sunday evening progressed, however, journalists reporting from Minsk gradually lost access to Wi-Fi and mobile Internet as the city’s communications were jammed. Falling back on bygone reporting tactics, correspondents were forced to dictate their stories over the telephone. “He was going to collect material for a report on what was happening on Minsk’s streets and we discussed what he needed to do, in order to avoid any problems. Maxim told me that he’s familiar with stun grenades and rubber bullets and wouldn’t go where things were too ‘brutal.’ He would observe from a distance,” says Lysova. The last time they spoke was around 1 a.m. on Monday. Solopov stopped answering his phone after that.

In the evening, after Tikhanovskaya’s press conference, Solopov headed to Niemiha Street where demonstrators were already gathering. The street lights had been shut off in some neighbors of the capital as the city prepared for mass protests. The Telegram channel Nexta Live called on oppositionists to assemble in the center of town, at the “Minsk Hero City” war memorial. 

Belarusian blogger and former Belsat television opposition commentator Stepan Putilo (Stsiapan Putsila) has managed the Telegram channel Nexta Live from Poland since 2015. In the week before Belarus’s 2020 presidential election, his channel gained 100,000 new subscribers. His audience on Telegram more than doubled throughout the entire presidential race. At the time of this writing, Nexta has more than 887,000 followers, making it the single most popular Telegram channel in Belarus. Putilo actively supports the protests and regularly urges his readers in Belarus to join the demonstrations against Lukashenko.

“The monument is where [stun grenades] tore up [protesters’] feet and legs. But Maxim and I couldn’t get there because the riot police had actually divided the city into two halves by marching at crowds in three columns,” says RBC correspondent Alexander Atasuntsev, who spent nearly the entire evening covering the protests with Solopov. “We worked from the opposite side.”

Solopov reported the first clashes between protesters and police around 10 p.m. “During our calls, he repeatedly mentioned stun grenades,” says Meduza deputy chief editor Dmitry Tomilov. Almost immediately, the smoke from the grenades obscured the positions of riot police and protesters began running away. In footage shared online, retreating demonstrators are visible through the clouds only when illuminated by exploding flash grenades.

The next morning, the “Vesna” human rights group reported that dozens of protesters were hospitalized in Minsk after clashes with the police. One demonstrator was taken away in an ambulance with a severe chest wound, says Mediazona reporter Anton Mardilovich, who also spent Sunday evening in downtown Minsk.

After midnight, Solopov and Atasuntsev tried to break through again toward the war memorial where demonstrators remained. “We tried to get there and ran into a crowd headed from there along Romanovskaya Sloboda,” says Atasuntsev. The protesters were rubbing their faces in pain, fighting the aftereffects of tear gas fired by the police. Some tried to wash their eyes.

Riot police not only took control of the protests at the war memorial but also started catching up to the crowd that was leaving the city’s center. “[Maxim and] I turned around and walked with the crowd toward Independence Avenue,” Atasuntsev says. “But it was blocked from left to right, so the crowd turned around and went back the way it came.” By that time, the police had completely shut down Independence Avenue. 

“A few thousand people [...] are marching. More and more are joining. Drivers are blasting ‘Changes’ and the protesters are shouting ‘The police are with the people!’ They’re throwing bottles and stones,” Solopov reported to Meduza in these minutes. “They’re being pushed back along Lenin Street. About 2,000 people. The police are in camouflage and ‘Hummer’ armored vehicles.”

At 1:10 a.m., Atasuntsev lost sight of Solopov. “You lose [people] all the time there when they start shooting. You just run. You don’t think. When the front rank reached the intersection at Haradski Val and Nyamiha, they started dispersing everyone. They bombarded the crowd with stun grenades. People scattered in panic,” recalls Atasuntsev, who also provided Meduza with a video recording showing people fleeing the street amid the sounds of shots and explosions.

Atasuntsev says he’s sure that Solopov was arrested at some point in the next 30 minutes. “They started throwing stun grenades right at [protesters’] feet. The road there is narrow and the sound reverberated even more,” he says. To escape the onslaught, Atasuntsev hid in a nearby courtyard. “They got him somewhere within a radius of 100-200 meters [about 500 feet] from where Haradski Val intersects with Internacyjanaĺnaja Street. As far as I could see, the other retreats were blocked.”

Solopov remained in contact with Meduza’s newsroom for another 10-15 minutes after he was separated from Atasuntsev. In his last conversation with his editors, he mentioned being outside the Maxim Gorky Theater on Valadarskaha Street. Police had trapped demonstrators in the area and were arresting people violently and firing tear gas, Solopov said.

“He said the crowd was closed in on both sides, that the police were lined up on both sides, and he was with the crowd blocked in around the theater. It stunk of tear gas and they were firing stun grenades. They were cracking down really hard,” says Tomilov, recalling his final conversation with Solopov. “People were screaming, ‘We can’t breathe!’” Solopov told Meduza in the last update he managed to file. 

Police officers beat up Maxim Solopov when arresting him. Daily Storm correspondent Anton Starkov, who was also reporting from the Belarusian capital, says he witnessed the attack. He described the incident to Meduza hours later while in custody at a police station in the capital. “[Starkov] was sending quick texts throughout the night,” another Daily Storm correspondent named Igor Samusevich told Meduza. “I asked about [Solopov’s] injuries, but they couldn’t say anything for sure. Maxim ended up in a different police van. By the time they got to the station, they didn’t see him again.”

Starkov was released from jail in Minsk late in the evening on August 10. Once freed, he immediately told Meduza about the moment police officers attacked him and Solopov. “We were running from the riot police and tear gas and ran into a dead-end, where there was a fence,” Starkov says. I boosted Maxim over the fence and then he was supposed to help me over. But at that moment, a large detachment of riot police came out from around the corner and suddenly pounced on him. I remember that Maxim managed to kneel, raise his hands in the air, and identify himself as a journalist. They beat him down anyway. I think it was three people and [they started to beat him] really violently. I’ve even got video footage. As far as I could see, he walked off on his own [after the beating]. I couldn’t tell [how bad his injuries were] because riot cops appeared on our side of the fence literally seconds later and started beating us, too. [At the police station] they treated us okay because we’re foreigners. They didn’t beat us. The others, the Belarusians, they beat up badly. For 24 hours, we weren’t given anything to eat or drink.”

Also on Sunday night, Starkov shared a police van with WarGonzo project head and RT freelance journalist Semyon Pegov. Judging by footage of Pegov’s arrest, where a riot police officer drags him (apparently unconscious) along the ground, the incident took place on Pobediteley Avenue near the “Maskva” movie theater and the Sport Palace. 

If the Daily Storm reporter’s account is accurate, Solopov’s arrest may also have occurred at Pobediteley Avenue, which means he managed to evade police at Gorky Theater and wander along Minsk’s streets for another 20 minutes.

On August 10, Meduza telephoned every police station, detention center, and hospital in Minsk. For help finding our missing correspondent, we also appealed to the Belarusian presidential administration, the president’s press secretary, several lawyers and human rights advocates, and the Foreign Ministries of Russia and Latvia (where Meduza is headquartered). Despite these efforts, after more than 24 hours, we know virtually nothing about what happened to Maxim Solopov. “My wife and I called all the hospitals, morgues, medical examiners, and so on,” Maxim’s brother, Denis, told Meduza.

According to “Open Russia” human rights group attorney Anton Gashinsky (Solopov’s legal representative in Minsk), Meduza’s missing correspondent might be in custody at a pretrial detention center in Zhodzina, about 40 miles northeast of Minsk. Alexey Pryanishnikov, the Open Russia group’s coordinator, told RBC, however, that this is just a guess based on indirect evidence. Arraignment hearings that will provide more information are scheduled for Tuesday. “The tactics quite resemble the actions Moscow’s police take at large rallies, transporting [people] to different remote spots, holding them, and then prosecuting and so on. Even though the [Russian] embassy is intervening, no one agency can confirm anything officially,” said Pryanishnikov.

“We called Zhodzina and some woman there answered and said, ‘Wait a minute,’” Maxim Solopov’s brother told Meduza. “We didn’t even manage to say [Maxim’s] name. Then she apparently set the receiver down next to the phone and we heard how other phones were ringing every second. And she answered them all the same way: please wait a minute, please wait a minute. It went on like that for almost two hours.”

Pryanishnikov later told Meduza that his team was unable to find Solopov in Minsk or Zhodzina, but he said detention centers will cross-check their prisoner lists on Tuesday morning, August 11. A staff member at the police station in Zhodzina told Meduza that Solopov isn’t in custody there now but might be brought in on Tuesday morning. “[The detainees] are either in Minsk or with us or still in transit. They don’t bring them anywhere else,” the woman said. According to police records released at 8 p.m. on Monday, August 10, Solopov was not listed at any jail in Minsk.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told Meduza that Moscow still has no information about Solopov’s whereabouts, despite the fact that more than 24 hours have passed since he disappeared in Minsk. Russia’s ambassador in Belarus is still searching for the missing journalist.

A total of four Russian journalists were jailed in Minsk on Sunday night, August 9. Semyon Pegov from WarGonzo and RT was released after being jailed at the city’s main detention center. Daily Storm correspondents Anton Starkov and Dmitry Lasenko were freed late on August 10 from the same jail. All three men were collected by staff from the Russian embassy. Maria Zakharova told Meduza that the reporters are being brought to the embassy and then sent to Smolensk.

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Story by Liliya Yapparova with assistance from Kristina Safronova, Svetlana Reiter, and Anastasia Yakoreva

Translation by Kevin Rothrock

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