Stockholm, August 12, 2021 – Belarusian authorities should immediately release journalist Syarhey Hardzievich and cease jailing independent reporters in retaliation for their work, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
On August 2, the Ivanavskiy District Court in the country’s southwestern Brest region convicted Hardzievich, a correspondent with the independent regional news website Pershy Region, on charges of insulting Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko and two police officers, as well as defaming one of those officers, according to news reports, coverage of the trial by his employer, and Pershy Region editor Pavel Daylid, who spoke to CPJ by messaging app.
The court sentenced Hardzievich to 18 months in prison and ordered him to pay damages of 2,000 rubles (US$793) to each of the police officers, according to those sources.
Hardzievich denied the charges and plans to appeal the sentence, according to Pershy Region, which said the journalist told the court the case was fabricated in retaliation for his journalism, and that there had been a “presumption of guilt” against him.
Hardzievich will be held at Remand Center No. 6 in Baranavichi, in Brest, pending his appeal, Daylid told CPJ.
“The jailing of journalist Syarhey Hardzievich once again demonstrates Belarus authorities’ abuse of the law to silence independent journalists who cover law enforcement abuses,” said CPJ Program Director Carlos Martínez de la Serna. “Authorities should not contest Hardzievich’s appeal and should immediately release him and other journalists unjustly held behind bars.”
Since the start of nationwide protests in August 2020 following Lukashenko’s disputed reelection, Hardzievich and Pershy Region have frequently reported on local protests and instances of police violence in Brest, according to CPJ’s review of the outlet.
The prosecution alleged that Hardzievich ran a local news commentary group chat on the app Viber, and that on August 12, 2020, he posted an intentionally insulting message in the chat about two police officers allegedly involved in arresting protestors, according to his employer.
Prosecutors also alleged that he posted another defamatory message about one of those officers in the chat, and that on September 5 he reposted to the same chat group a Facebook post by a Belarusian blogger describing Lukashenko as a “rat,” according to Pershy Region’s coverage.
CPJ was unable to review those messages, as the chat group has been deleted; Daylid confirmed to CPJ that Hardzievich founded and served as an administrator of the group. He added that Hardzievich frequently covered alleged abuses by local police, and said Hardzievich believed the charges were retaliation for that coverage.
Hardzievich is Pershy Region’s correspondent for the town of Drahichyn but often covers stories in other parts of Brest, Daylid said.
The journalist’s lawyers argued that prosecutors had not proved that Hardzievich himself made the comments and that the chat group, whose history could have proved Hardzievich’s innocence, had been improperly deleted before it could be examined, according to Pershy Region.
Police arrested Hardzievich on charges of insulting Lukashenko on December 22, 2020, held him under house arrest from December 25 to April 22, and then released him with a travel ban pending trial, according to Pershy Region’s coverage and Daylid.
On August 2, the court convicted Hardzievich under Article 368, Part 1, of the Belarusian criminal code (publicly insulting the president), Article 369 (insulting a state representative), and Article 188 (defamation), according to Pershy Region. About two months of Hardzievich’s time under house arrest will count as time served toward his 18-month sentence, Daylid said.
In a video interview prior to sentencing, Hardzievich had stated that expecting the court not to accede to prosecutors’ requests would be akin to “expecting a miracle.”
In the months leading up to Hardzievich’s arrest, Pershy Region documented a series of official harassment against him, including a previous defamation case in which police accused the journalist of being “against the present authorities.”
Last month, police raided the homes of the Pershy Region’s employees and the editorial office it shares with sister publication Hantsavitsky Chas as part of a wave of raids against independent media outlets, as CPJ documented at the time.
CPJ called and emailed the Interior Ministry of Belarus and emailed the Drahichyn district police office for comment, but did not receive any replies.
Separately, on August 9, the Supreme Court of Belarus ordered the dissolution of the Belarusian office of the international free speech organization PEN, according to reports.
[Editors’ note: After the publication of this article, CPJ received an error message stating that the email seeking comment from the Interior Ministry was not delivered. This article has been updated to reflect that CPJ also called that office for comment.]