Belarus journalist threatened, warned not to publish

New York, December 10, 2009—The Committee to Protect Journalists today called on Belarusian authorities to prosecute and convict the perpetrators who made death threats against Iryna Khalip, Belarus correspondent for the Moscow-based independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta.

In a memo to Novaya Gazeta, Khalip said she received threatening e-mail, phone calls, and a telegram from anonymous senders who warned her not to publish the investigative report she wrote and submitted to the paper on November 22. Anonymous e-mails said: “Unless you remove your article you will go to meet Anna Politkovskaya,” referring to the Novaya Gazeta reporter who was gunned down in 2006, and a telegram suggested Khalip should “think about her son when reporting.” An unidentified man told Khalip by phone that she should not leave her house if the article is published.

Details mentioned in the messages suggest the perpetrators had intercepted Khalip’s e-mails and bugged her cell phone, she told CPJ. She said she believes the Belarusian security service, the KGB, is behind the threats because it is the only agency in the country capable of screening private correspondence.

Khalip said the threats were prompted by her investigation into the division of assets left by Badri Patarkatsishvili, a Georgian tycoon who died of a heart attack in early 2008. According to Khalip and press reports, Patarkatsishvili had invested US$160 million in the state-controlled oil company Belneftekhim and had interests in the Belarusian timber processing industry.

“We are outraged by the death threats against Iryna Khalip,” said CPJ Deputy Director Robert Mahoney. “The suspicion that these threats may have come from within security services is deeply disturbing. The government must get to the bottom of the threats and must not shy away from taking all necessary steps to ensure that those behind them have to account for their actions in a court of law.”

In March 2008 in Minsk, the KGB arrested on documents’ forgery charges a U.S. lawyer, Emanuil Zeltser, and his Russian aide, Vladlena Funk, who participated in the handling of Patarkatsishvili’s assets, local and international press reported. Zeltser was sentenced to three years in prison and spent half the term in a Belarusian jail until his release in June.

In Khalip’s article, she said Zeltser had told her that the KGB tortured him to extract Patarkatsishvili’s original will and wanted him to lure the executor to Minsk. Zeltser alleged that the KGB was working on behalf of a contender for the tycoon’s assets.

This is not the first time Khalip has been threatened in connection with her work. Belarus prosecutors harassed the journalist, charged her with defamation, and forced her newspaper, Belarusskaya Delovaya Gazeta, to shut down ahead of the 2006 presidential elections, CPJ research shows. In October, Khalip received the Courage in Journalism Award from the International Women’s Media Foundation.