Updated: Aug. 16, 2020 at 12:50 p.m.
A doctoral student in the political science department was released Friday after being detained in Minsk, Belarus for roughly three days.
Stas Gorelik, a Belarusian citizen who has studied at GW since 2016, was detained Wednesday for allegedly participating in mass riots in the country, friends said. University spokeswoman Crystal Nosal said Thursday that officials are monitoring the situation as developments occur and are in contact with “relevant parties.”
Nosal said Gorelik has worked as a teaching assistant while enrolled at GW. She said Gorelik was previously unauthorized to return to the United States because of COVID-19 travel restrictions.
“We are concerned about his welfare and have reached out to his family to offer support and assistance,” Nosal said in an email.
Nosal said in an updated statement Saturday that the University received notice Gorelik was released from detainment and sends kind thoughts to Gorelik and his loved ones.
“We would like to express our profound appreciation to all those involved in his release and for the outpouring of support from the community,” she said.
Denis Baranov, a 2009 alumnus who has mutual friends with Gorelik, said Gorelik’s lawyer said that Gorelik was released from the state security jail Friday morning EDT. Baranov said Gorelik remains a “suspect of sorts,” and the case is not closed as of Friday.
“This is an extraordinary occurrence,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone being released from the KGB custody within 72 hours.”
Marisa Durham, a second-year master’s student at Columbia University and Gorelik’s girlfriend, said Gorelik was conducting research in Armenia prior to the COVID-19 outbreak but returned to Belarus to be with his family after the virus flared. She said roughly seven men broke into their apartment around 1 a.m. Wednesday, separated her from Gorelik, went through their belongings and took Gorelik away in handcuffs a few hours later.
“We don’t know why – no one knows why – they don’t tell you these things and there’s no official documents yet,” Durham said Thursday before Gorelik was released. “The lawyer hasn’t been able to see him. We haven’t been able to see him so we don’t know the condition, and we honestly don’t know why because none of our work is related to Belarus.”
Durham said Gorelik’s father updated her Friday that Gorelik was arrested for “mass rioting,” according to an arrest warrant, but said neither she nor Gorelik participated in any protests.
Protests erupted throughout Belarus after President Alexander Lukashenko – the leader of the country for 26 years – declared victory in the country’s elections Sunday, but the vote was condemned by the United States and European Union as unfree and unfair.
“We weren’t a part of the protests, we weren’t a part of the opposition and we had nothing to do with any of this,” Durham said. “We were here, he was here doing PhD stuff related to George Washington University, and I was here to be with someone I love.”
An email sent to faculty and PhD students earlier this week states that Gorelik has studied the triggers of mass protests as a graduate student. The email states Gorelik did not take part in organizing any protests and only returned to Belarus to renew his visa to the United States, needing to stay in the country after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“His family – with whom he lives in Minsk – has reason to think that this happened because he knows a prominent opposition political analyst in Belarus who is being set up on charges of inciting unrest,” the email states. “Stas has been accused of ‘actions that grossly violate public order, or participation in them,’ a serious but vaguely worded law.”
The political science department also launched a website Thursday highlighting sources to help advocate for Gorelik’s release and media coverage about the situation.
A GW student also from Belarus, who has requested their name be kept anonymous for their own and their family’s safety, said violence in Belarus has been ongoing for roughly two months and hundreds of people have been detained for supporting candidates other than Lukashenko. Peaceful protests have been interrupted by government force resulting in many injuries, and internet connections were cut off in the country, the student said.
“I personally was not sure what was happening with my friends or family in the past couple of days just because they did not have a connection,” they said. “Thank god everything is fine. But still, it was really hard for people to get any kind of information.”
The Belarusian student said they had been in communication with Gorelik’s family who knew their son’s location but had no “obvious” ways to communicate with him. The student said a group of about 200 people protested outside the White House Wednesday against Lukashenko’s reelection in solidarity with protesters in Belarus.
“I know that GW students came to support him, specifically, students that are not from Belarus, and that was great,” they said.