Andrzej Poczobut sentenced to prison in Belarus

New York, February 11, 2011–The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns today’s imprisonment in Minsk of Andrzej Poczobut, a Grodno correspondent for the largest Polish daily, Gazeta Wyborcza, and calls on Belarusian authorities to release him immediately.

According to reports in the local press, the Oktyabrsky District Court in Minsk sentenced Poczobut to 15 days in jail on charges of “participation in the unsanctioned protest rally” that followed the December 19 presidential elections. Poczobut covered the protests for Gazeta Wyborcza, he told CPJ in January.

It is the second time in a month that the same court sentenced Poczobut on the same charges. On January 12, agents with the Belarusian security service, the KGB, detained Poczobut in Grodno, and brought him to the Minsk court the next day. He was sentenced to a fine of 1.75 million Belarusian rubles (about US$580), and released. According to the independent news website Charter 97, Minsk prosecutors protested the sentence, which they called mild.

“We are outraged that Andrzej Poczobut was not only convicted on a trumped-up charge but that he has now been given jail time after already receiving a sentence of a fine,” said CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova. “By stiffening its own sentence in the same case within a month, the Belarusian court revealed itself to be just another cog in the country’s repressive machine. We call for Poczobut’s immediate release.”

Since December 19, authorities have been relentlessly pressuring Poczobut in what appears to be retaliation for his journalism. He was among more than two dozen journalists detained at the protest rally in Minsk. Although unlike many, Poczobut was released from the state custody the next day, police and the KGB continued to harass and interrogate him.

On January 8, Grodno police detained and brought Poczobut to the regional KGB headquarters, where he was questioned about his role at the protest rally. After he refused to answer questions without his lawyer present, KGB agents struck him in the chest and head, he told CPJ. Before he was let go, the KGB handed him a written warning that said he would face a criminal charge of participating in mass disorder–a charge that carries up to eight years in prison–if he is present at a similar event in the future. Four days later, the KGB raided his apartment, confiscated computer, six hard drives, two flash drives, and archives of Magazyn Polski na Uchodzstwie, an independent magazine to which he has contributed, and then detained him.

In power since 1994, Lukashenko won a fourth term in office in the December 19 ballot with just under 80 percent of the vote, according to the state Central Election Commission. Thousands of protesters marched on the streets of Minsk, calling the elections stolen and demanding his resignation. Authorities harshly suppressed the protests and retaliated against the independent and pro-opposition media that covered the events. The KGB and police raided the newsrooms and apartments of journalists, confiscated reporting equipment, and imprisoned reporters.

Poczobut is one of two journalists currently in jail in Belarus, CPJ research shows.