Belarus: Journalists arrested and beaten

English PEN is seriously concerned by the harassment and arrests of journalists during a demonstration in Belarus.

On 25 March 2008, thousands gathered in Minsk and elsewhere in Belarus to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the 1918 founding of the short-lived Belarus National Republic (BNR). Trials against over 70 people opened just a day later, on 26 March, where 26 were summarily sentenced to between 5 and 15 days in prison and another fifty were fined. All were accused of staging illegal demonstrations and public affray.

Among the journalists under detention is Sjamen Pechanko of the newspaper Nasha Niva  who was sentenced to 15 days’ imprisonment, and will be held until 9 April. According to European Radio Belarus, he is accused of shouting out phrases such as ‘Shame!’ and ‘Long Live Belarus’, and waving the now illegal red and white flag of Belarus. Age 27, Pechanko was awarded the independent Belarus Association of Journalist’s 2007 Free Word award for his fictional piece, Savage and Julia. He is also the author of In the Belarus Army.

Arrested a day before the demonstration, and sentenced to five days in prison was the artist Alexsei Maraczkin, who was taken from his studio. As the Head of the Union of Belarusians Abroad and key member of the Belarus Popular Front Party, it is thought that his arrest was aimed to prevent him from participating in the following day’s event. Photographs of Andrei Lankievicz, a Nasha Niva photographer, show him bleeding profusely from a head wound as he was led away by police. PEN understands that Lanckievicz has not been sentenced.

On 27 March, police staged a nation wide search of the homes of independent journalists and of their offices. According to the Belarus Media Association, the police action is being carried out under Article 367 of the Belarus Penal Code that penalises ‘libel’ against the Belarus President.  There are fears that this may lead to further arrests.

The Belarus State Prosecutor’s office told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) that the searches were being made in relation to a case initiated in 2005 against three people who had posted cartoons ridiculing President Lukashenko on a website in 2005. The three are said to have fled Belarus in 2007. Police are looking for their  ‘collaborators’. The Belarus Foreign Ministry has also told RFE/RL that searches against EU and Polish funded independent newspapers were being carried out as they had no accreditation, and, furthermore, ‘had illegally engaged in journalistic activities for foreign money on the territory of the Republic of Belarus for a long time’.

Among those attacked on the 25 March were a number of journalists from outside Belarus, mainly Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine.  Two Lithuanian TV journalists were badly beaten as they attempted to film the events. The Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned the events as a gross violation of the principle of free expression. The US embassy has withdrawn staff in protest, and further international sanctions are threatened. The European Union which has been working on improving relations with Belarus, not least because gas lines from Russia to the EU run through the country, expressed on 28 March ‘deep disappointment’ in the violence used against demonstrators and the arrests.

Please send appeals:

  • Protesting the sentences and beatings of journalists around the 25 March  demonstratoins;

  • Pointing out that such actions are in direct violation of Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which Belarus is a signatory, as well as Article 21 that protects the right to peaceful assembly;

  • Calling for the release of all writers and journalists held in violation of their rights and an end to further harassment and attacks on the independent media.

Appeals to:

President of the Republic of Belarus
Alyaksandr G. LUKASHENKA
Karl Marx Str. 38
220016 g. Minska
Fax:  375 (172) 26 06 10 or 375 (172) 22 38 72

It may be more effective, however, to send the above appeal via the Belarussian representative in London:

HE Mr Aleksandr Mikhnevich
Embassy of the Republic of Belarus
6 Kensington Court
London W8 5DL
Fax: (020) 7361 0005 


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