New York, February 25, 2008—The Belarusian Supreme Court has ordered the early release of Aleksandr Sdvizhkov, former deputy editor of the now-shuttered independent newspaper Zgoda, who was sentenced in January to three years in a high-security prison for reprinting controversial Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in 2006.
“We’re relieved at the Belarusian Supreme Court’s decision to grant early release to Aleksandr Sdvizhkov, but he should not have been jailed in the first place,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “We remain concerned that the court did not overturn this politically motivated conviction.”
Sdvizhkov’s lawyer, Maya Aleksandrova, told CPJ that the court cut the sentence to three months after reviewing the journalist’s appeal on Friday. The journalist, arrested in November, had already served that length of time. Aleksandrova said the court reduced Sdvizhkov’s sentence due to “exceptional circumstances,” citing the journalist’s deteriorating health, his good behavior in prison, and his elderly mother’s poor health.
Andrei Bastunets, a lawyer with the Minsk-based Belarusian Association of Journalists, told CPJ that Sdvizhkov’s release was a cynical trade-off: “Authorities unjustly sentence activists only to show [the international community] how merciful they are when ordering their release.” In a special resolution adopted on Thursday, the European Parliament had criticized Belarusian authorities for politically motivated imprisonments. Sdvizhkov’s case was among those cited in the resolution, which called for the immediate release of the prisoners.
Sdvizhkov’s paper reprinted the controversial cartoons in Zgoda in February 2006, prompting authorities to begin an investigation into possible “incitement to religious hatred.” But journalists said the prosecution was motivated less by religious sensitivity than a desire to silence a critical newspaper in the weeks before a presidential election.
The paper, which had drawn official ire for covering an opposition candidate in the March 2006 presidential election, was shuttered about a week before the vote. Sdvizhkov fled Belarus after the cartoon incident to avoid imprisonment, but he returned in November to attend his father’s funeral. While in the country, the Belarusian Security Service, known as the KGB, arrested him.
Controversy erupted after the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12 editorial cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad in late 2005. The cartoons, which some Muslims considered blasphemous, were later reprinted in a number of international publications, further fueling the storm.