Belarusian journalist held by the KGB on espionage charges

New York, December 8, 2014–The Committee to Protect Journalists today called for the immediate release of journalist Aleksandr Alesin, who according to news reports is being held by the Belarusian national security service, known as the KGB.

Alesin, reporter and military analyst with the Minsk-based independent newspaper Belorusy i rynok (Belarusians and the Market), went missing and stopped answering his phone on November 25. On Thursday, the independent news website Charter 97 reported, citing unidentified sources, that Alesin was detained by KGB agents at a coffee shop in Minsk, where he met with a friend.

Today, the security agency informed the journalist’s family that he is in KGB custody and is charged with two separate counts of espionage and treason, his daughter, Olga Alesina, told the independent news website Nasha Niva. Olga Alesina said the KGB also told the family that her father was detained while meeting with a foreign diplomat, who the KGB did not name.

According to Nasha Niva, if convicted, Alesin could be imprisoned for up to 15 years.

“President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s government has imprisoned or forced underground or into exile virtually every independent journalist that dares to speak out,” said Europe and Central Asia Research Associate Muzaffar Suleymanov. “We urge authorities to drop the charges against Aleksandr Alesin and release him immediately.”

Alesin is known for analytical reports on Belarus’ military-industrial complex, as well as commentary on developments in the conflict in neighboring Ukraine. In commentary for Charter 97, he spoke about deployment of Russian military jets and S-300 surface-to-air missiles as deterrence to NATO.

Separately, Natalya Radina, Charter 97‘s chief editor, told CPJ that Belarusian authorities have called for the website to be blocked inside the country beginning January 1, 2015. Radina is a 2011 recipient of CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award. She fled Belarus in mid-2011 following her release from a KGB jail.

Radina told CPJ that Igor Shunevich, Belarus’ interior minister, voiced his demand during a government meeting Thursday, when his agency discussed measures to counter the spread of narcotics and other illegal substances. Among the suggested tactics was to completely block domestic access to websites on the government-run blacklist, which includes Charter 97. Access to sites on that list is already limited to government agencies and educational and cultural institutions, Charter 97 reported.

“We urge Belarusian authorities to remove Charter 97 from its list of malicious websites and stop obstructing access to news,” CPJ’s Suleymanov said.

Belarus is one of the most heavily censored countries in the world, according to CPJ research.