New York, April 27, 2005—A court in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, handed brief jail sentences today to two Russian journalists arrested while covering an opposition rally, according to local and international press reports. The Committee to Protect Journalists said it was alarmed by the action and called for the release of the two reporters.
The Leninsky Court sentenced Aleksey Ametyov, a correspondent for the Russian edition of Newsweek magazine, to a 10-day term and Mikhail Romanov, a reporter for the Russian daily Moskovsky Komsomolets, to an eight-day term. The two were accused of participating in a rally not sanctioned by the Minsk government, according to press reports.
Ametyov and Romanov were among 40 people detained at yesterday’s rally, which drew about 400 demonstrators to mark the anniversary of the April 1986 nuclear meltdown in Chernobyl. Protesters opposed President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s policy to repopulate and farm the Chernobyl region, press reports said.
Tatyana Reviaka, a staffer with the Minsk-based human rights center Viasna, told CPJ that the journalists’ case was heard behind closed doors; no journalists or observers were permitted in the courtroom. Reviaka said about 30 journalists were present at yesterday’s rally, but only Ametyov and Romanov were arrested. Minsk authorities have not issued a statement clarifying why the two journalists were singled out.
“We’re disturbed that Belarusian authorities arrested two people who were apparently doing their jobs as reporters,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “We call on authorities to release them immediately.”
In an interview for the Russian news Web site Gazeta.ru, Aleksandr Gordeev, editor-in-chief of the Russian edition of Newsweek, called the actions of Belarusian authorities “pure arbitrary rule” that is “insulting and unacceptable.”
Demonstrators yesterday included Belarusian, Ukrainian and Russian citizens, carrying posters, flags and banners covered with anti-Lukashenko slogans. Some carried the banned Belarusian red-and-white national flag and European Union flags; others had orange banners that invoked neighboring Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, according to press reports.
Police dispersed the demonstrators yesterday evening. All of those arrested were handed jail sentences of up to 15 days and fined, The Associated Press reported.
Since coming to power more than 10 years ago, Lukashenko has stifled the opposition and eradicated independent media. The flawed October 2004 parliamentary election and referendum, which gave Lukashenko the right to run for a third presidential term in 2006, further consolidated his rule.