Belarusian jailed on spurious charge; ’uncensored swearing’ alleged

New York, March 21, 2007—A judge in the western city of Grodno has sentenced Igor Bantsyr, a reporter for the independent Polish-language magazine Magazyn Polski na Uchodzstwie, to 10 days in prison for “uncensored swearing” in public.

Judge Natalya Kozel of the Leninsky district court convicted Bantsyr on Monday after hearing testimony from two police officers who claimed they heard the journalist swearing in the center of the city, according to local press reports. The officers arrested Bantsyr at 4 p.m. on Sunday in downtown Grodno, the Belarusian Association of Journalists reported.

Bantsyr has denied the accusation. The magazine’s editor, Andrei Pochobut, told CPJ that the arrest was intended to prevent Bantsyr from reporting on an incident that occurred the prior evening. Bantsyr told the editor that he witnessed the arresting officers block cars, harass, and manhandle pedestrians on Saturday night, Pochobut told CPJ. Bantsyr has written several recent articles critical of local authorities in the magazine, which is distributed to the country’s ethnic Polish minority.

“We condemn the bogus imprisonment of our colleague Igor Bantsyr and call for his immediate release,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “Belarusian authorities have a long and alarming record of harassing independent journalists, including those of Magazyn Polski na Uchodzstwie.

In the run-up to the February 2006 presidential election, authorities tried to curb coverage of the election by arresting dozens of journalists, including Pochobut, on bogus charges of “using obscene language” and “hooliganism.” Pochobut was sentenced to 10 days in jail for hooliganism.

Belarus is one of the 10 most censored countries in the world, according to CPJ research. Independent and opposition journalists often face arbitrary arrest for their reporting while state authorities routinely use bureaucratic measures to close newspapers, prevent them from printing, or confiscate entire press runs.