In Belarus, Poczobut in closed trial for ‘insulting’ leader

New York, June 14, 2011Belarusian authorities must end the retaliatory prosecution of Andrzej Poczobut, a Grodno-based correspondent for the largest Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza, and release him immediately, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. 

Authorities put Poczobut on trial today in the western city of Grodno, local and international press reported. The trial is a closed one. He is being prosecuted for allegedly insulting and libeling President Aleksandr Lukashenko in articles he wrote for Gazeta Wyborcza and the Belarusian news website Belarussky Partizan. Poczobut faces up to six years in jail if convicted on both counts.

Authorities did not allow Poczobut’s wife or any of his colleagues in the courtroom, the independent news website Telegraf reported. Judge Vitaly Letsko, of the Leninsky district court, is expected to announce the verdict by end of week, Poczobut’s defense lawyer Aleksandr Berilov told The Associated Press.

“It is outrageous that a journalist in Europe in the 21st century should be tried behind closed doors for writing critically about an elected leader,” CPJ Deputy Director Robert Mahoney said. “Andrzej Poczobut must be cleared of these politicized charges and released.”

Before his April 6 arrest, Poczobut told CPJ that the insult charge stemmed from articles he had written in the run-up to the flawed presidential election and its aftermath. In the articles, Poczobut had criticized Lukashenko but he had not insulted him, Poczobut told CPJ. Grodno police arrested Poczobut for allegedly violating his travel ban when he tried to leave the city for the capital Minsk; two days later, he was indicted with libeling Lukashenko and his stay in prison was extended by two months.

Observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe criticized the Belarusian government for secretive vote-counting practices and suppression of news media during that period. CPJ documented the arrests of at least 20 journalists who had sought to cover the rigged election and the protests that erupted in its aftermath.

Belarusian authorities have sought to intimidate Poczobut in the past, CPJ research shows. Since the post-election crackdown on the independent press and opposition activists, Poczobut was imprisoned, had his apartment raided multiple times by police, was interrogated by the KGB in Grodno and Minsk, and had his reporting equipment confiscated. CPJ continues to advocate on his behalf.