Journalist Andrzej Poczobut, who was arrested in March 2021 and accused of inciting hatred and “calling for sanctions,” appears at the Hrodna regional court on January 16, 2023. He was sentenced to eight years imprisonment on February 8. (AFP/Leonid Shcheglov)

Belarusian authorities sentence journalist Andrzej Poczobut to 8 years in prison, detain journalist Anastasia Sharkevich

Paris, February 8, 2023 – Belarusian authorities must immediately release journalists Andrzej Poczobut and Anastasia Sharkevich, and stop retaliating against journalists for their reporting, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Wednesday.

On Monday, February 6, Sharkevich, who manages the Telegram channel of the independent newspaper Narodnaya Volya, appeared in a video published by a pro-government Telegram channel saying she had been arrested by security forces for participating in protest marches, according to media reports and the Belarusian Association of Journalists, a banned advocacy and trade group operating from exile. 

That post claimed that Sharkevich promoted “destructive content” online and called for blocking traffic at protests and committing gross violations of public order and illegal actions.

Separately, on Wednesday, a court in the western city of Hrodna convicted Poczobut of inciting hatred and “calling for sanctions,” and sentenced him to eight years in prison, according to news reports and the BAJ.

CPJ could not immediately determine whether Poczobut, a political commentator and producer of Nad Niemnem, a TV program focused on Belarus’s Polish community for the Poland-based independent broadcaster Belsat TV and Polish public broadcaster TVP Polonia, planned to appeal the sentence. 

“Belarusian authorities’ sentencing of journalist Andrzej Poczobut to eight years in prison illustrates the government’s never-ending cycle of repression against independent journalists,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, in New York. “Authorities must drop all charges against Poczobut and immediately release him, the recently detained journalist Anastasia Sharkevich, and all members of the press currently behind bars.”

Authorities previously detained Sharkevich in October 2020, when officers searched her home and seized her equipment in connection to an investigation into alleged civil unrest, according to media reports and the BAJ.

In December 2022, Belarusian authorities restored access to Narodnaya Volya’s website after blocking it that August.

“All the old materials prior to 2023 have been completely removed from the website,” BAJ deputy head Barys Haretski, told CPJ via messaging app.

Poczobut has been detained since his March 2021 arrest, according to those reports. On October 4, 2022, the Belarusian State Security Committee, or KGB, added Poczobut to a list of people involved in terrorist activities, according to Viasna, a banned human rights group.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Poland repeatedly called on Belarusian authorities to release Poczobut, a dual Belarusian and Polish national, and considers his arrest and trial “an element of the anti-Polish campaign conducted by the Belarusian authorities.” 

On January 16, Poczobut’s trial began behind closed doors, according to BAJ and multiple news reports. The charges stem from his 2020 coverage of anti-government protests, statements he made defending the Polish minority in Belarus, and his description of the 1939 Soviet invasion of Poland as aggression. 

CPJ emailed the Belarusian Investigative Committee and called the Ministry of Interior for comment, but did not receive any replies.

Belarus was the world’s fifth-worst jailer of journalists, with at least 26 journalists behind bars at the time of CPJ’s December 1, 2022, prison census.

The trials of at least two of those journalists, Valeryia Kastsiuhova and Maryna Zolatava are ongoing.  They separately face multiple charges that can carry up to 12 years each in prison, according to the BAJ, Viasna, and media reports.