Travel leave for Belarusian reporter no change of heart

In an unexpected development reported in the press today, Belarusian authorities temporarily lifted a travel ban on Irina Khalip, prominent journalist and reporter for the Moscow-based independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta. The restriction, which includes a weekly check-in with district police and a requirement to spend every night in her Minsk apartment, was part of a suspended two-year prison sentence handed to Khalip in May 2011 on fabricated charges of mass disorder in connection to her reporting on presidential elections.

Was it a Valentine’s Day gift from authorities, who are known to repress critical journalists and independent news outlets with censorship, threats, imprisonment, and assault, in addition to travel bans? Or did authoritarian leader Aleksandr Lukashenko respond to CPJ’s call to fulfill his publicly declared promise and let one of his fiercest critics out of the country?

Most likely, it was neither. Khalip’s permission to leave comes with two strict conditions: she can exit the country only two times, each for an undefined period. And, second, the permission is only valid until April 3, local and international press reported.

And, as Khalip put it to the press, authorities are using opponents such as herself as a bargaining tool with Europe, which maintains sanctions against Belarus for its dismal human rights record. “Authorities placed us all on sale in exchange for financial aid, Eastern Partnership [European Union’s cooperation program with developing nations], and removal of sanctions. I don’t doubt that Belarusian diplomats will portray my swift date with my husband as democratic progress,” she told independent news website Charter 97.

Following his release from jail in April 2012, Khalip’s husband, opposition politician Andrei Sannikov, was allowed to leave the country and was granted asylum in the U.K. in October.

As regards to Khalip’s status, nothing has changed. “I’m still a convict, and in July I’m scheduled to show up in court, which will determine what to do with me next,” she told Charter 97. According to CPJ research and press reports, the court is slated to review whether Khalip has fulfilled of her verdict and decide whether to close her criminal case or impose new restrictions, which could include imprisonment.

Khalip is right: The regime has not changed its attitude toward the press, and might indeed be using her case as a bargaining tool. Or, given the continued threat of imprisonment at her court appearance, authorities might be prompting Khalip to buy a one-way ticket.