Poczobut given suspended 3-year prison term in Belarus

New York, July 6, 2011The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the defamation conviction of Andrzej Poczobut, a Grodno correspondent for the largest Polish daily, Gazeta Wyborcza, and calls for it to be overturned on appeal.

On Tuesday, the Leninsky district court in Grodno convicted Poczobut of libeling Belarus President Aleksandr Lukashenko, and handed him a suspended three-year prison term, local and international press reported. The court dropped insult charges that prosecutors levied against Poczobut in March, the independent news website Charter 97 reported.

Authorities said Poczobut committed those crimes through articles he published in Gazeta Wyborcza and the Belarusian news website Belarussky Partizan starting in October 2010; he faced up to six years in jail. Poczobut’s trial was held behind closed doors, local press reported.

Poczobut was released after the court announced the verdict. According to Charter 97, Poczobut told the journalists outside the courtroom that he did not insult or libel Lukashenko but instead published his opinion on the president’s policies. He said he plans to appeal the sentence.

“Commenting on the policies of a president in a democracy is not a criminal offense,” said CPJ Deputy Director Robert Mahoney. “We call on the court in Grodno to overturn this conviction on appeal.”

Before his April 6 arrest, Poczobut told CPJ that the insult charge stemmed from articles he had written in the run-up to the country’s flawed December 2010 presidential election and its aftermath. Grodno police arrested Poczobut for allegedly violating a 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.

Poczobut’s sentencing comes amid an ongoing crackdown against independent reporters who cover protest rallies called “Revolution via social networks,” CPJ research shows. On Sunday, police in Minsk, Grodno, Gomel, and Mogilev detained at least 15 journalists who covered the rallies, the Minsk-based Belarusian Association of Journalists reported. On June 29, police and men in plainclothes in Minsk and Brest detained and beat at least a dozen reporters and broke their equipment at a similar rally.

At least 400 protesters were detained and arrested on Sunday after they silently marched in the streets and expressed their opposition to Lukashenko’s authoritarian policies by clapping hands, according to local and international press reports.