In Belarus, more newsroom raids as crackdown continues

New York, December 29, 2010–Belarusian authorities continued their massive crackdown on critical news media on Tuesday as security agents raided offices shared by the independent weekly Nasha Niva and the Belarusian PEN Center.

KGB agents confiscated a dozen computers and numerous digital storage devices after producing a search warrant saying the organizations were being investigated on suspicion of organizing public disorder and desecrating national symbols, the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) reported.

As CPJ previously reported, at least 20 journalists have already been jailed after covering post-election protests in Minsk. Protesters have denounced the conduct of the December 19 presidential election in which incumbent Aleksandr Lukashenko was declared the victor.

“We are incensed by the brutal repression being carried out by Belarusian authorities against the country’s independent and pro-opposition press. It must stop at once,” CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. “We demand the immediate release of the 20 journalists in state custody, the dismissal of politically motivated criminal cases, the return of confiscated reporting equipment, and the delivery of proper medical treatment to journalists assaulted by police.”

Also Tuesday, BAJ said security agents searched the home of Nasha Niva Editor-in-Chief Andrei Skurko and took his home computer. BAJ President Zhanna Litvina told CPJ that KGB agents forced Skurko to sign a gag order that bars him from speaking about the raid.

Lawyers for detained journalists Irina Khalip and Natalya Radina, both held at a KGB detention center since December 20, have also been forced to sign gag orders, according to press reports. Khalip, correspondent for the Moscow newspaper Novaya Gazeta, and Radina, editor of the pro-opposition news website Charter 97, are being held on suspicion of organizing public disorder, a charge that could bring up to 15 years in prison.

Radina suffered head and ear injuries when police violently dispersed a post-election demonstration that she was covering. But she has not received medical attention in custody, the editor’s mother, Nadezhda, told Charter 97. Local press reports, which BAJ confirmed, said Belarusian authorities are trying to place Khalip’s 3-year-old son, Daniil, in a foster home against the wishes of his grandparents.

Khalip’s husband, opposition presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov, is also being held by the KGB. Last week, Amnesty International quoted Sannikov’s lawyer as saying the politician was tortured in KGB detention. Sannikov’s legs appear to be broken, and his speech and demeanor indicate head injuries, the lawyer told Amnesty.

In a rare joint statement issued last week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton, condemned the post-election violence and called for the immediate release of more than 600 political detainees rounded after the December 19 election. “The government of Belarus should take the steps necessary to create political space for political activists, civil society representatives, and independent journalists,” the statement said. “Respect for democracy and human rights remain central to improving Belarus’ relations with the United States and the European Union. Without substantial progress in these areas, relations will not improve.”

Lukashenko, in power since 1994, won a fourth term in office with just under 80 percent of the vote, according to the state Central Election Commission. On December 20, observers with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe criticized the lack of transparency in the vote count. A defiant Lukashenko told a news conference the same day that post-election detainees were “pogromists and bandits.” In an explicit threat against the press, he pledged to make journalists “answer for every word they write,” the presidential press service reported.