Journalists imprisoned, threatened in Belarus

New York, June 26, 2012–Belarusian authorities should immediately release a critical journalist who was tried, convicted and sentenced to prison in a single day on a vague charge of hooliganism, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. In an unrelated incident, a Belarus correspondent for the independent Moscow-based newspaper Novaya Gazeta received a threatening package in the mail, the paper reported.

On June 22, a district court in Minsk, the capital, tried Pavel Sverdlov, a journalist with the independent broadcaster European Radio for Belarus, on hooliganism charges and sentenced him to 15 days in jail, the independent news website Charter 97 reported. The journalist was arrested for allegedly using coarse language, the report said, although authorities did not disclose what was said or the context in which it was said. The Minsk-based Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) reported that Sverdlov was detained by men in plainclothes at 10 a.m., minutes after leaving his apartment for work.

Sverdlov’s colleagues believed the journalist was imprisoned in retaliation for coverage detailing a lack of security checks in the Minsk subway system, which was bombed in April 2011, according to local news reports. CPJ research shows that Belarusian authorities have a record of using retaliatory hooliganism charges against critical journalists. Sverdlov’s employer said it would appeal the journalist’s sentence, BAJ reported.

Sverdlov was imprisoned a day after police raided the apartment of prominent journalist Andrzej Poczobut in the city of Grodno. Poczobut was jailed on charges of defaming the president in articles critical of administration policies, according to news reports. If convicted, Poczobut faces up to five years in jail, the reports said.

“Not content with detaining journalists for what they write, Belarus is now arresting them for what they say,” said CPJ Deputy Director Robert Mahoney. “This charge of using ‘coarse language’ is clearly bogus. The authorities should release Pavel Sverdlov immediately and unconditionally.”

In an unrelated incident, Irina Khalip, the Minsk correspondent for Novaya Gazeta, received a threatening package on Friday, according to news reports. Khalip told CPJ she found a sealed envelope in her mailbox that was addressed to her but had no postal stamps on it. The envelope contained the severed head of a chicken, she said. Khalip reported the incident to police, and told local journalists that she “considered the package a direct threat to her life.”

The journalist declined to speculate on which of her articles could have prompted the threats or on the identity of the person who had planted the package. Authorities have not reported any developments in the investigation.

Khalip has been targeted in the past. Over the past few years, she has been threatened and her computer was confiscated, according to CPJ research. She was imprisoned by the Belarusian security service, known as the KGB, following the December 2010 presidential vote, CPJ research shows. Early last year, Khalip spent a month and a half in jail and in May was given a suspended three-year prison term. She is barred from leaving Belarus.