Belarusian police arrest journalists, block coverage in rally crackdown

New York, March 24, 2006—Riot police in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, detained at least nine journalists as they stormed an encampment of 200 or more opposition protesters in October Square early today, according to local and international press reports. Police barred other journalists from filming or taking pictures of the assault, which led to the arrests of the activists and ended an around-the-clock rally that began Sunday evening in protest of the flawed presidential election that returned Aleksandr Lukashenko to a third term.

Reporters Tatyana Snitko and Andrei Rasinksi, and photographer Artyom Liava, all with the newspaper Nasha Niva; freelance journalists Tatyana Vanina and Vadim Kaznacheyeu; Canadian freelance reporter Frederic Levoi; and Aleksandr Podrabinek, correspondent for the Russian human rights information agency Prima-News were arrested at around 3 a.m. during the police crackdown on October Square today, the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) reported.

Two journalists with the Georgian Public Broadcasting television channel—reporter Nino Giorgobiani and cameraman Giorgi Laghidze—were detained around noon today outside a court building in Minsk while waiting to interview relatives of the arrested protesters, the Georgian television channel Rustavi-2 said.

BAJ, a leading media watchdog, published a list today of journalists jailed throughout the country in the week since the election. At least 17 Belarusian journalists are jailed, most on charges of “hooliganism,” BAJ said. Six international journalists are also in detention, including Levoi, Podrabinek, Giorgobiani and Laghidze. Also under arrest are Ukrainian journalist Andrij Lubka, of the newspaper Karpatski Holos, and Polish journalist Dzmitry Hurnevich, of Radio Polonia. Lubka was arrested and sentenced to 15 days in prison on unspecified charged on March 22. Hurnevich was arrested and sentenced to 10 days in prison on March 21; the charges against him are also unclear.

In Brussels, European Union officials today imposed new sanctions on Belarus after declaring the election “fundamentally flawed” and criticizing the overnight crackdown on opposition protesters.

The United States joined the EU today in imposing targeted financial and travel sanctions against Lukashenko and other government officials. “We urge all members of the international community to demand that authorities in Belarus respect the rights of their own citizens to express themselves peacefully and to condemn any and all abuses,” The Associated Press quoted White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan as saying.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has supported Lukashenko’s re-election and criticized Western officials for inflaming tensions. In Moscow today, Lavrov criticized media reports of the police action this morning. “I would not call the scenes I saw on TV today the use of force,” Lavrov told the news agency Interfax.