Andrzej Poczobut, the correspondent of the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza in the western city of Hrodna, was freed today after a Hrodna court gave him a three-year suspended jail sentence on a charge of defaming President Alexander Lukashenko
“While we welcome Poczobut’s release after three months of arbitrary detention, he continues to be a closely-watched victim of President Lukashenko’s persecution of journalists,” Reporters Without Borders said. “We demand that this conviction be overturned. Poczobut will no longer be able to work without risking several years in jail whenever the regime sees fit.
“It is hard not to see today’s sentence as a warning to all journalists who dare to criticize the Belarusian authorities. The president, who has been in power since 1994, is hounding journalists more and more as the country sinks deeper into an unprecedented economic crisis.”
Arrested on 6 April on charges of insulting and defaming the president in a total of ten reports posted on the Gazeta Wyborcza website, the Belaruspartisan.org website and in his blog, Poczobut had been facing up to four years in prison. The prosecutor requested a three-year jail sentence on 24 June, but Judge Vital Liatsko finally dismissed the insult charge and suspended the requested jail term.
“It was only because of pressure from the European Union and the international community that the authorities did not leave me in prison,” Poczobut told Reporters Without Borders after the trial, which was held behind closed doors and was marked by many procedural irregularities as well as arrests and beating of journalists who tried to cover it.
“My rights as a defendant were violated and I was given no chance to prove that I was right,” Poczobut added. A Polish journalist who came to cover the case, Ihar Bantsar, was himself sentenced to five days in prison yesterday.
Reporters for the AP, Reuters and EPA agencies were manhandled by four plain-clothes policemen outside the courthouse this morning and prevented from photographing Poczobut as he was brought to the court for the final hearing.
Poczobut told Reporters Without Borders he would continue to refer to President Lukashenko as a dictator, even if that was precisely the reason why he was arrested and convicted. He also told Reporters Without Borders he would appeal against his conviction.
16.06.2011-Five-day jail sentence for Polish journalist who wanted to cover Poczobut trial
Reporters Without Borders calls for the immediate and unconditional release of Ihar Bantsar, the editor of the Polish-language weekly Glos z-nad Niemna, who was arrested as he was leaving his home in the western city of Hrodna yesterday to cover fellow journalist Andrzej Poczobut’s trial (see below), and was given a five-day jail sentence later in the day on a charge of “minor delinquency.”
“We urge the authorities to let the media cover Poczobut’s trial, which is due to resume tomorrow,” Reporters Without Borders said. “The harassment of foreign media, especially Russian and Polish media, at President Lukashenko’s behest must stop. Bantsar’s conviction was a dangerous farce. The authorities cannot hope to conceal Poczobut’s trial.”
Bantsar was convicted of insulting police officers at the summary trial held at the police station where he had been taken. His wife, Andzelika Orchwo, told Reporters Without Borders that the sentence was clearly designed to prevent him from covering Pachobut’s trial.
Orchwo and a friend, a leader of the Polish community in western Belarus, wanted to attend the trial but were prevented from leaving Bantsar’s home by policemen who spent the entire day stationed outside.
Reporters Without Borders is concerned about the frequency with which Polish journalists are being harassed in Belarus. Agnieszka Lichnerowicz, a journalist working for Radio TOK FM, and Boris Czerniawski, a Russian assistant cameraman for Polish national TV, were arrested while covering an anti-Lukashenko protest yesterday in Hrodna and were held for two hours.
14.06.2011 - Gazeta Wyborcza correspondent facing four-year jail term
Andrzej Poczobut, the correspondent of the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, is facing a possible four-year prison sentence in the trial that began today before the Leninski district court in the western city of Grodno.
Arrested on 6 April (see below), he is accused of defamation and insulting the president under articles 367.1 and 368.1 of the criminal code in a total of ten reports posted on the Gazeta Wyborcza website, the Belaruspartisan.org website and in his blog.
“The severity of the sentence Poczobut is facing on such absurd charges testify to the autocratic insanity to which President Alexander Lukashenko has subjected his country,” Reporters Without Borders said. “Neither Poczobut’s family nor his fellow journalists were able to attend today’s hearing. This casts serious doubts on the chances of a fair trial.”
The press freedom organization added: “We call for all future hearings to be public until the charges against Poczobut are dismissed.”
At least three journalists have been imprisoned in Belarus in the past 10 years on charges of insulting the president. Belarus is ranked 154th out of 178 countries in the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.
08.04.2011 - Gazeta Wyborcza correspondent Andrzej Poczobut arrested again
Reporters Without Borders is outraged that Andrzej Poczobut, the correspondent of the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza, had been detained since 6 April, when he was arrested as he was trying to leave the western city of Hrodna to take part in a videoconference in Minsk with Members of the European Parliament about the persecution of journalists in Belarus.
It seems that the government’s conciliatory gestures in recent days were designed solely to woo the international community and persuade countries to resume their aid to Belarus, which is experiencing a serious economic crisis. Journalists who covered the 19 December opposition protests are still being harassed by the police and judicial authorities.
Police stopped Poczobut’s car in Hrodna on 6 April and took before the local state prosecutor, who told him he was banned from leaving the city because he is facing trial on a charge of insulting the president. When allowed to leave the prosecutor’s office, Poczobut nonetheless set off for Minsk again only to be intercepted and arrested about 30 km outside of Hrodna. He is now being held in a Hrodna detention centre and it is not known when he could be released.
Poczobut served a two-week jail sentence for his supposed participation in the 19 December protests, which he covered as a reporter. On 28 March, he was charged with insulting President Alexander Lukashenko in various articles published in Gazeta Wyborcza and posted online.
His apartment was searched a few days later by three KGB agents, who confiscated his computer as “the crime weapon.” He was originally told to report for interrogation yesterday but he requested a postponement. He is facing a possible sentence of two years in a labour camp on the charge of insulting the president.
In a sign of a continuing climate of fear, Natalia Radzina, the editor of the Charter 97 news website, has fled the country. Facing a possible 15-year jail sentence on a charge of “organizing or participating in a riot,” Radzina left after receiving a summons from the KGB in Minsk, which she feared could lead to her being formally charged and imprisoned. She spent a month in prison after he arrest on 19 December.
Reporters Without Borders is appalled to learn that her family is now being harassed. Since her flight, several of her relatives had been summoned by the KGB and her father received a visit from security agents at his workplace. Her newspapers, the letters of support that she had received, and her computer have all been confiscated.
The harsh repression that followed the 19 December protests had nonetheless been replaced a few conciliatory gestures towards journalists and the opposition in recent days. One of the opposition leaders, Anatol Lynbedzka, was released on 6 April. Two days before that, the foreign ministry announced that the charges against a dozen government opponents and Novaya Gazeta reporter Irina Khalip.
Instead of being charged with “organizing or participating in a riot,” which carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison, Khalip is now charged “organizing and preparing a disruption of public order,” which carries a maximum three-year sentence. Around 60 government opponents and civil society figures are still facing prosecution for allegedly participating in last December’s protests.
Photo : Aleksy Salej-Gazeta Wyborcza