New York, September 16, 2002—The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is outraged by today’s conviction of Viktar Ivashkevich, editor-in-chief of the independent newspaper Rabochy.
A Minsk district court found Ivashkevich guilty of libeling President Aleksandr Lukashenko and sentenced him to two years’ hard labor. Under the Belarusian Criminal Code, defaming the president is punishable by as much as five years in prison.
The trial, which began on September 11, 2002, the first anniversary of the attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., appeared deliberately chosen to minimize international scrutiny of the hearing.
Ivashkevich plans to appeal today’s verdict in the Minsk City Court. He remains free pending that court’s decision.
The case against Ivashkevich stems from an article in a special August 2001 issue of the newspaper titled “A Thief Belongs in Prison,” which accused Lukashenko’s administration of corruption. Rabochy‘s special issue never reached its readers because the prosecutors seized 40,000 copies of the issue and submitted them as evidence in the case.
A Minsk District Prosecutor’s Office charged Ivashkevich with criminal libel almost a year later, on June 20, 2002.
“Viktar Ivashkevich’s sentence once again shows President Lukashenko’s utter disregard for press freedom,” said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper. “Journalists should never face criminal charges for their work.”
Other journalists charged
Ivashkevich is the third Belarusian journalist convicted of criminally libeling President Lukashenko for criticizing the president ahead of the September 2001 elections.
On June 24, 2002, the Leninsky District Court in the city of Hrodno, in western Belarus, found editor-in-chief Mikola Markevich and journalist Paval Mazheika, of the newspaper Pahonya, guilty of libeling the president. The journalists were sentenced to two-and-a-half and two years, respectively, of hard labor and began serving their sentences on September 1, 2002.