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Post-election crackdown on the press continues in Belarus

Opposition leader Boris Nemtsov holds a portrait of imprisoned journalist Irina Khalip during a rally in front of the Belarussian Embassy in Moscow. (Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin)
New York, January 11, 2011--The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the ongoing official crackdown against the independent media in Belarus. The Belarusian security service, known as the KGB, continues to relentlessly raid newsrooms, confiscate reporting equipment from publications and journalists' homes, imprison independent and pro-opposition journalists, and harass their families.

At around 4 p.m. on Saturday, three local police officers detained prominent journalist Andrzej Poczobut, a correspondent for Poland's largest daily, Gazeta Wyborcza, outside his home in the western city of Grodno. They gave him a KGB summons and took him to the Grodno security service headquarters, where agents interrogated him for three hours about his alleged participation at the December 19 protest rally in Minsk. (Poczobut was present at the rally covering events for Gazeta Wyborcza.) In the course of the interrogation, the agents struck him in the chest and head when he refused to answer questions without his lawyer, Poczobut told CPJ. Before he was let go, the KGB handed him a written warning that said he would face a criminal charge of participating in mass disorder--a charge that carries up to eight years in prison--if he is present at a similar event in the future.

In two incidents on Monday, police in the city of Borisov, Minsk region, raided the newsroom of the independent weekly Borisovskiye Novosti and the apartment of its editor, Anatoly Bukas. Police confiscated all of the newspaper's electronic equipment, including 12 computers; three fax machines, three cameras; a printer; a scanner; multiple flash drives and computer discs; and Bukas' personal laptop computer. Police also raided Bukas' home and took his camera, the Minsk-based Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) reported.

"The authorities must stop this protracted crackdown at once," CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. "We call on KGB agents in Grodno to stop harassing Andrzej Poczobut and allow him to work without fear of reprisal. We demand that Minsk authorities immediately return all confiscated equipment from the newsroom of Borisovskiye Novosti and from the home of its editor, Anatoly Bukas."

BAJ reported that oficers showed a search warrant to the newsroom from the Minsk Regional KGB Department that said the search was a part of a criminal case looking into "mass disorder"--an umbrella indictment that has been used to round up independent and pro-opposition journalists as well as opposition activists since demonstrators gathered in downtown Minsk on December 19 to protest the results of a flawed presidential vote.

According to local reports, the KGB is continuing to pressure imprisoned journalists Irina Khalip and Natalya Radina. Andrei Bastunets, a lawyer with BAJ, told CPJ defense lawyers and family members have been refused visits with Khalip and Radina since late December. Authorities cite the KGB's alleged lack of a specialized room for visitation as the reason, Bastunets said. Khalip is a local correspondent for the Moscow-based newspaper Novaya Gazeta, and Radina is the chief-editor of the pro-opposition news website Charter 97; both are charged with organizing and participating in mass disorder and face up to 15 years in jail if convicted. 

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