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In Belarus's First Celebrity Trial, Fashion Designer Faces Fraud Charges

Fashion designer Sasha Varlamau attends the opening court hearing during his trial in Minsk on February 4.
Fashion designer Sasha Varlamau attends the opening court hearing during his trial in Minsk on February 4.
It's pretty unusual for prospective prosecution witnesses at a criminal trial to go out of their way to praise the defendant.

But that's exactly what happened when the fraud trial of Belarusian fashion designer Alyaksandr Varlamau opened in Minsk last week.

Sasha Kirynyuk, a 28-year-old stylist who has already been questioned by police and is expected to testify against Varlamau, sounded more like a character witness for the defendant.

"I haven't met a more intelligent, brilliant man in my life. I think all of us should be ashamed of what is happening in court. He is not a rapist, a murderer, or a maniac. This is just about financial fraud that has yet to be proven," Kirynyuk told RFE/RL's Belarus Service.

"He is a sick man who will not try to flee. He is not about to shoot anyone. This is all just for show."

Kirynyuk's warm words about Varlamau are even more extraordinary given that the prosecution has designated him as one of the "victims" of the fashion designer's alleged crimes.

But then again, the 57-year-old Varlamau is no ordinary defendant. His is the country's first real celebrity trial, a high-profile case in which the state is accusing the man who put Belarusian fashion on the map of fraud, embezzlement, and tax evasion.

King Of Fashion

Varlamau isn't quite the Belarusian Gianni Versace and is barely known outside the former Soviet Union. But he has for the past two decades been the country's most visible figure in the world of fashion. He has designed clothing for the wife of a prime minister, as well as the costumes for national holiday celebrations and presided over Belarus's premier fashion events.

Varlamau, who has been imprisoned since his arrest in May 2011, is also one of the most high-profile, openly gay men in Belarus, a country where homosexuals are routinely harassed by police and the security services.

The Fashion Mill festival, Belarus's premier fashion event, was organized by Sasha Varlamau.
The Fashion Mill festival, Belarus's premier fashion event, was organized by Sasha Varlamau.

Despite the designer's legal travails, longtime friends and supporters like Syarhey Filipau, an advertising agent who has known Varlamau for two decades, remain fiercely loyal.

"He's a selfless man who loves his profession," Filipau says. "He's done a lot for the [fashion] industry."

Former fashion-industry colleagues have taken to social-networking sites to praise Varlamau and tout their positive experiences working with him.

Humble Beginnings

Born in 1955 in Minsk, Varlamau graduated from the Minsk Ballet School. A spinal injury ended his ballet career, and he worked for a time at an aircraft-repair plant and served in the Soviet Army.

In the 1980s Varlamau took an interest in fashion and joined the Belarusian Institute of Culture, later working as a director and choreographer. He also earned a doctorate at the State Institute for Theater Arts in Moscow.

In 1992, after the Soviet Union broke up, Varlamau started his own modeling agency and fashion house in newly independent Belarus. He also led the Center for Youth Fashion on the premises of Belarusian State University and organized the Fashion Mill festival, the country's premier fashion event.

For years, Varlamau conducted his activities while maintaining close ties with Belarusian authorities. The government sponsored the Fashion Mill festival and in 2010 he designed the costumes for official ceremonies marking Belarus's traditional harvest holiday.

Varlamau also worked closely with Ludmila Sidorski, wife of Syarhey Sidorski, who was prime minister from 2003 to 2010. He designed many of her clothes and helped craft her public image.

No Longer Connected

Varlamau's legal woes began just months after Syarhey Sidorski was fired in a December 2010 government reshuffle.

Varlamau denies charges of illegally using the premises of the Belarusian State University, failing to pay rent, and misappropriating state funds for his own interests. He admits, however, to failing to pay 45 million Belarusian rubles ($5,200) in taxes.

The Minsk court has rejected Varlamau's request to be released on his own recognizance for the duration of his trial due to what he claims is his deteriorating spinal condition.

Investigators say the damage caused by his alleged criminal activities exceeded 1.2 billion Belarusian rubles ($138,000). His friends note, however, that if he had that kind of money, it wasn't visible. Although he drove a Mercedes, he lived in a modest studio apartment in a working-class section of Minsk.

"For a long time Sasha [Varlamau] lived in a one-room apartment, in a fairly bad neighborhood," Filipau says. "Every time I visited him, I wondered why he wouldn't buy an apartment, even the same kind of one-room apartment, in a better neighborhood, because that was simply insane -- alcoholics hanging out inside the building and so on -- but he said he didn't need that and he didn't have enough money."

Out With The Old?

Pavel Sharamet, a prominent Belarusian journalist who lives in Moscow, tells RFE/RL's Belarus Service that it's likely that Varlamau is being removed from his place at the pinnacle of the fashion industry to make room for somebody else.

Likewise, Varlamau's sister, Ryma Shymchonak, vaguely suggests a political motive, saying he is being singled out for practices that were fairly common and widespread.

"Of course, everybody knows how this money was spent. But only Varlamau is guilty," she says. "This has been going on for decades."

Speaking at the close of the 2011 Fashion Mill, just days before his arrest, Varlamau said he was "tired of being betrayed" by government officials.

"I dedicated all these years to the festival because I love designers. For the past 12 years of work, I haven't earned a penny in compensation, but I can't go on like this," he said, according to press reports.

Varlamau also revealed at the time that he and his longtime partner had ended their relationship.

Kirynyuk, who has known Varlamau for 15 years and considers him his second father, remains fiercely loyal to the man who once served as his mentor.

"Yes, he was bringing in money, revenues, but besides that, it was about the development of the youth. [He was providing] experience, trips abroad. Fine, they weren't getting any per diems, but everybody knew they weren't getting that money, for reasons that were justified," Kirynyuk says.

"But everyone wanted to go on those trips and everyone was happy. They were almost kissing his hands and feet saying, 'Thank you very much for giving us this opportunity.' He made stars out of those people."

Written by Antoine Blua in Prague based on reporting by Aleh Hruzdzilovich in Minsk. Bohdan Andrusyshyn of RFE/RL's Belarus Service also contributed to this report from Prague

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