Belarus musicians behind bars in Lukashenko’s crackdown on dissent

Tor Band musicians
Image caption,A Belarus court found musicians guilty of multiple criminal charges, including creating an “extremist formation” and insulting the president

The songs of Tor Band have become a symbol of mass protests that spread across Belarus like wildfire when authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko remained in power after 2020 elections condemned by the West as fraudulent.

Now, three of the band’s members have been given long jail terms as part of his internal crackdown on dissent.

Tor Band leader Dzmitry Halavach has been given nine years in prison, Yauhen Burlo was jailed for eight years, and Andrei Yaremchyk for seven and half years.

Human rights groups speak of blacklists carrying the names of musicians, bands and artists banned from performing.

Those deemed “disloyal” to the Lukashenko government are often replaced with artists from Russia, says PEN Belarus, part of a worldwide association of writers which focuses on freedom of expression.

“Independent culture has literally returned to the practices of the Soviet era – it went underground,” said the group’s head, Tatyana Nyadbai.

The musicians of Tor Band were convicted in the southern city of Gomel last week of multiple criminal charges, including creating an “extremist formation” and insulting the Mr Lukashenko.

Their sentences have been condemned as “an unprecedented prison sentence for creativity” by Pavel Sapelka of the Viasna Human Rights Centre.

Belarus’s exiled opposition leader, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, whose own husband is currently serving an 18-year jail sentence, wrote on social media: “Lukashenka’s regime shows its fear. Music can be silenced in courts, but never in our hearts.”

The band members were arrested in October 2022 after the biggest crackdown on protests under Lukashenko’s 30-year rule.

Protests in Belarus in 2020
Image caption,In 2020 Belarus saw the largest anti-government protests in the country’s modern history

Many Belarusians have fled fearing for their lives, after thousands were arrested, assaulted and thrown in jail.

Mr Burlo was on crutches and unable to stand up to hear the verdict, Radio Free Europe’s Belarus Service reported.

It quoted a source saying the trio’s relatives “were crying during the verdict, one of them fainted”.

“They were recognised as an ‘extremist formation’ solely for the lyrics of their songs, but those who listened to these songs know there is nothing there that calls for violence or incites hatred,” Mr Sapelka told the BBC.

Tor Band are but the latest from the culture scene to be targeted since 2020, according to PEN Belarus. Between January and June of this year there have been 925 cases of human rights violations, it has reported. These include censorship and denying the right to a fair trial.

Spouses from the Belarusian band Irdorath
Image caption,Vladimir and Nadezhda from the band Irdorath left Belarus after serving two-year jail sentences for participating in the protests

Last week, well-known singer and TV host Larisa Gribaleva was detained, the Viasna Human Rights Centre reported.

Ms Gribaleva spoke out against violence in 2020, and Viasna says she was included in a “secret list of 80 performers who are prohibited from performing”.

Who else is on the list is unknown.

The artist later wrote on Facebook she was safely back home.

“When the authorities detain yet another cultural figure, they want to send a message to those performers who are still free in Belarus and have not yet expressed their loyalty to the regime,” Mr Sapelka said.

Earlier this year two musicians of the Belarusian band Irdorath left the country after serving two-year jail sentences for participating in the protests.

There was no such escape for artist Ales Pushkin, who died in prison in July while serving his five-year sentence for inciting hatred and “desecration of state symbols”.

‘No celebration’ for Corbett family in US sentence

Jason Corbett
Image caption,Jason Corbett, who was killed in his North Carolina home in 2015, was originally from Limerick

The sentencing of a woman and her father for the killing of a man from Limerick in 2015 is “not a moment of celebration”, the victim’s family has said.

Businessman Jason Corbett, 39, was killed in his home in Lexington, North Carolina.

On Wednesday, his wife Molly Martens Corbett and his father-in-law Thomas Martens, an ex-FBI agent, were sentenced to between seven months and two-and-a-half years in prison.

They were convicted of second-degree murder in 2017 and appealed the conviction.

The case was quashed by an appeal court in 2020 and a new trial was ordered.

Molly Martens Corbett and her father Thomas Martens
Image caption,Molly Martens Corbett and her father Thomas Martens agreed plea deals

Last month, both agreed plea deals to manslaughter charges.

They never denied killing Mr Corbett, but said they had acted in self-defence.

Mr Corbett was found beaten to death in the main bedroom of his house.

In sentencing, Judge David Hall took into account they had already served just over three-and-a-half years after the 2017 conviction.

In a statement to the media, the Corbett family said they wanted to “find a path to move forward with our lives”.

The family added: “While we may not be satisfied with the sentencing, we would like to acknowledge the dedication and hard work exhibited by the Davidson County Sheriff department and the District Attorney’s office throughout the past eight years.”

The statement ended by asking for privacy as the family moved forward “with the comforting knowledge that Jason will forever hold a place in our hearts and memories.”

Apple should pay €13bn Irish tax, argues EU lawyer

Sign in Apple store

A legal adviser to the European Court of Justice has argued a ruling allowing Apple to avoid paying €13bn (£11bn) in back taxes should be overturned.

The move is the latest in the long-running saga between the EU, the US tech giant and the Irish government.

Three years ago, a ruling which found Apple had been given illegal tax breaks by the Irish government was overturned.

But Advocate General Giovanni Pitruzzella at the Court of Justice said the case should be reviewed again.

He argued a series of legal errors had been made and the ruling in Apple’s favour had failed “to assess correctly the substance and consequences of certain methodological errors that, according to the Commission decision, vitiated the tax rulings”.

The legal opinion is not a final verdict and is non-binding, but the court does tend to agree with such opinions in the majority of cases.

In response to the latest twist, an Apple spokesman said that the initial ruling allowing the firm to avoid paying back taxes was “very clear that Apple received no selective advantage and no state aid”.

“We believe that should be upheld,” they added.

In 2016, the European Commission decided Apple had received unfair preferential treatment from the Irish government, allowing it to pay a much lower rate of tax than other companies.

The Commission said this constituted illegal aid given to Apple by the Irish state.

The affair became a symbol of the Commission’s efforts to clamp down on what it saw as massive tax avoidance by multinational giants.

The Irish government has argued that Apple should not have to repay the back taxes, deeming that its loss was worth it to make the country an attractive home for large companies.

Ireland, which has one of the lowest corporate tax rates in the EU, is Apple’s base for Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Although corporation tax rates for businesses are set nationally, and are not subject to the EU’s jurisdiction, the trade bloc does have extensive powers to regulate state aid and in this case, it argued that by applying very low tax rates to Apple, Ireland was granting it an unfair subsidy.

Two years ago, the lower court, known as the General Court, ruled that the European Commission’s decision that Apple should pay back taxes was legally flawed and should be set aside, but that ruling itself could now be overturned after the latest twist.