‘She’s strictly an armchair crusader’ Russian national Irina Wickholm disappeared three months ago. Now, she’s set to go on trial in Belarus for tweeting about Lukashenko.
Russian national Irina Wickholm was last heard from in late May. Around that time, she phoned a friend to tell him that a police officer had visited her home in Brest, Belarus. Prior to her disappearance, Wickholm was actively tweeting to her handful of Twitter followers about the “crimes” of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. Three months later, the Belarusian Attorney General’s Office sent out a press release about a felony defamation case opened against a “58-year-old foreign citizen” identified only by the initial “V.” Shortly afterward, human rights activists identified the defendant in the trial as Irina Wickholm. Now, she faces up to five years in prison in Belarus for what her friends describe as “strictly” armchair activism.
In late May 2021, Russian national Irina Wickholm (@IrWi99) was mainly tweeting to her 69 followers about the actions of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. That said, the 58-year-old hardly wrote any of the posts herself. For the most part, Irina retweeted news articles and quoted statements from opposition figures critical of Lukashenko (such as this one comparing the Belarusian president to Osama bin Laden).
On May 23, Wickholm shared a blog post from her LiveJournal about the forced landing of a Ryanair plane in Minsk and the arrest of Belarusian opposition journalist Roman Protasevich. Wickholm titled the blog post, “Another Crime of Lukashenko: An Act of State Aviation Piracy” — the text lifted entire paragraphs from a news article published by the Russian BBC. Apparently, the title was based on the Greek Foreign Ministry’s statement (cited in the Russian BBC article) calling the incident an “act of state aviation piracy.” Vokkholm added the words “another crime of Lukashenko” herself.
Shortly after sharing her blog post on Twitter, Irina Wickholm stopped posting on social media altogether.
What happened to Irina Wickholm only became known three months later. On September 1, the Belarusian Attorney General’s Office released a statement saying that a criminal case for the “public defamation” of Alexander Lukashenko had been sent to court. The press release named the defendant in the case as “58-year-old foreign citizen V.”, specifying that on May 23, she published a tweet with “slanderous information” about the Belarusian president committing an “act of terrorism and aviation piracy.” According to the case materials, the unnamed foreign national wished “to damage the authority of the state.” And for this, “Citizen V.” — who pleads her innocence — faces up to five years in prison.
The Attorney General’s Office didn’t give a full name, but on September 5, the Belarusian Human Rights Center “Viasna” (Spring) reported that in all likelihood, the defendant in the case is Irina Wickholm. The human rights activists said that Wickholm had been held in a Minsk pre-trial detention center since late May, but was recently transferred to a detention facility in Brest.
Viasna told Meduza that they found out about Wickholm’s arrest by accident, likely because she doesn’t appear to have any close relatives: “We have a problem with those who don’t have relatives. They can’t report [their arrests] from prison. We find out from those who leave prison or from random people. Some of the Russians visited our chat and wrote about her there.”
What exactly happened to Irina Wickholm since late May remains unknown. The Belarusian Attorney General’s Office informed the Russian Embassy about her arrest only on September 1. Embassy spokesman Alexey Moskalev underscored that Wickholm had received consular support already. “The consulate general in Brest is working on Irina’s case, its employees already met with the Russian national, although she didn’t ask for a meeting,” he said. Moskalev added that Wickholm had no complaints about the conditions of detention or the state of her health.
An Internet activist
There is hardly any verified information about Irina Wickholm’s background. However, Meduza managed to speak to three of her friends, who confirmed that she doesn’t have any close relatives.
According to Wickholm’s friends, she was born in Kislovodsk, a city in southwestern Russia, but moved abroad many years ago (and even wanted to renounce her Russian citizenship). She previously lived in Finland and Germany, but moved to Brest, Belarus, more than a decade ago. Her friends noted that Irina was living in a rental apartment and wasn’t formally registered; she worked as a nurse for elderly people and has four cats.
Wickholm also volunteered with Public Control of Law and Order, a movement that helps Russian citizens and residents of other countries in litigation regarding various rights violations (for example, in cases where the courts refused to consider a complaint). Among other things, Wickholm tried to help Russian nationals who emigrated to Hungary and Norway (as evidenced by her appeals to the state bodies of these countries, obtained by Meduza).
Irina Wickholm’s friends told Meduza that security forces in Belarus and Russia took an interest in her in mid-May. One of her friends who lives in Russia recalled that two police officers visited his home on May 17, and asked about Irina’s whereabouts. He replied that she lives in Belarus — and then he warned Irina that the police were asking about her.
Another friend told Meduza that Irina called him on May 27 and said that a police officer had come to her home in Brest. The officer asked about her residency status in Belarus and told her to go to the migration service the following day. According to our information, Wickholm did as she was asked — and no one has heard from her since.
Irina Wickholm’s friends did their best to locate her. They appealed to the Russian embassy and consulate, as well as to human rights activists, and law enforcement agencies in both Russia and Belarus (in total, Meduza has seen more than 20 appeals from Wickholm’s friends).
The only person who managed to find out anything was Elena (who asked Meduza to change her name), a Brest resident who has known Irina Wickholm for more than six years; they connected over their love of cats. The Russian consulate told Elena that Irina was under investigation and being held in a pre-trial detention center. Her friends failed to find out anything else, mainly because they aren’t Wickholm’s relatives.
Irina Wickholm is now awaiting trial. Her first hearing is scheduled for September 16. The Human Rights Center Viasna told Meduza that they tried to find legal representation for Irina, but while in pre-trial detention, she refused the services of local lawyers. In court, she will be represented by a state-appointed attorney.
Irina’s friends hope that she will be freed: they don’t believe that she committed any crimes. “She’s strictly an armchair crusader,” one of them said.
Translation by Eilish Hart