New York, July 2, 2012--Andrzej Poczobut, the prominent Grodno-based correspondent for the largest Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza, was formally indicted Saturday on criminal charges of libeling President Aleksandr Lukashenko through a series of articles critical of administration policies.
Poczobut, who had spent nine days in prison, was released from custody Saturday pending trial, but banned from leaving Grodno, local and international press reported. If convicted, Poczobut faces up to five years in jail. No trial date has been set.
Poczobut was arrested on June 21, the same day Grodno police raided his apartment and confiscated his personal computers in connection with the criminal libel investigation, the pro-opposition news website Charter 97 reported. Authorities did not return Poczobut's computers after releasing him from custody Saturday, local press reported.
In an interview Saturday with the independent newspaper Nasha Niva, Poczobut said he will continue practicing journalism despite the harassment and prosecution. According to the Minsk-based Belarusian Association of Journalists, authorities listed 11 of Poczobut's articles as cause for the raid and investigation in their search warrant. In those articles, published in Charter 97 and the independent news website Belarussky Partizan, Poczobut criticized Lukashenko's domestic and international policies, and condemned the execution of two men convicted of the April 2011 bombing at a Minsk subway station. Authorities said that in his articles Poczobut libeled Lukashenko, and insulted and discredited Belarus, the journalist told Nasha Niva.
"Reporting critically about government policy should not be considered a crime but a public service," CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. "We call on Belarusian authorities to immediately drop all charges against Andrzej Poczobut, lift the travel ban against him, return all of his seized reporting equipment, and allow him to do his job without reprisal."
Lukashenko's repressive regime has long persecuted Poczobut for his critical journalism, CPJ research shows. In 2011 alone, authorities detained and imprisoned him, and police raided his apartment and confiscated reporting equipment. The same year, authorities also subjected Poczobut to politicized prosecution and handed him a suspended prison term on charges of libeling the president.