Andrzej Poczobut

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In March 2021 law enforcement officers detained Belarusian journalist Andrej Poczobut, who reports on the country’s ethnic Polish minority. He faces incitement charges that his wife believes are related to his reporting on the community. 

Poczobut is a political commentator and producer of Nad Niemnem, a television program focused on Belarus’s Polish community for independent Poland-based broadcaster Belsat TV and Polish public broadcaster TVP Polonia. Poczobut was active on Twitter, where he commented on protests contesting the August 2020 reelection of President Aleksandr Lukashenko for his more than 13,000 followers. He also provided commentary and analysis of the protests for regional news outlets. 

On March 25, law enforcement officers arrested Poczobut in his home in the western city of Hrodna, according to media reports

Police also searched Poczobut’s apartment and confiscated two laptops, hard drives, seven old cellphones, and several books in Polish, according to news reports, Aksana Poczobut, the journalist’s wife, and Barys Haretski, deputy head Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), an independent advocacy and trade group that was banned in 2021 but continues to track journalist detentions from inside Belarus. Both Poczobut and Haretski spoke with CPJ in phone interviews.

Police took the journalist to a detention center in Minsk, where they later charged him with “incitement to racial, national, religious or other social hostility or discord,” according to banned Belarusian human rights organization Viasna, which operates unofficially in the country. If found guilty, the journalist could face a prison sentence of up to 12 years, according to the Belarusian criminal code.

The journalist’s wife called the allegations “absurd,” saying that he “had not done anything illegal.” Aksana Poczobut said her husband’s arrest might be connected to his coverage of the ethnic Polish community in Belarus, and his membership in the Union of Poles in Belarus, an independent cultural organization. Two days before Poczbut’s arrest, Belarusian authorities detained the head of the Union of Poles in Belarus, Andzelika Barys, and sentenced her to 15 days in prison, according to news reports.

On August 25, Viasna reported on its Telegram channel that Poczobut’s detention was extended by three months. In late 2021 Haretski told CPJ that he remains in detention past the end of the three month extension.

The journalist was arrested before. In March 2006, when he was editor of magazine Magazyn Polski na Uchodzstwie, he was arrested and sentenced to 10 days in prison on charges of petty hooliganism in the run-up to the 2006 presidential elections. 

On April 6, 2011, Belarusian authorities detained Poczobut, who was then the Hrodna-based correspondent for the largest Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza , for articles he had written in the run-up to the December 2010 presidential election and its aftermath, and tried him in a closed-door trial for allegedly insulting and libeling Lukashenko. A Belarusian court found him guilty on the libel charge and sentenced the journalist to a three year suspended prison term and acquitted him on the insult charge, according to news reports.

The journalist is held in Detention Center No. 8 in the city of Zhodzina about 30 miles northeast of Minsk, according to Viasna. The journalist’s wife Aksana Poczobut told CPJ that as of late 2021 he is in a cell with 15 other inmates. She also said that he has serious heart problems. 

In June 2021, the journalist contracted COVID-19 in the detention center, according to news reports. BAJ sent a request to the Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Health, and the Penitentiary Department of the Interior Ministry asking to transfer Poczobut to a hospital for a medical treatment, citing his cardiovascular problems, but the authorities refused, BAJ said. 

CPJ called the journalist’s defense attorney Aliaksandr Berilov in early November, but Berilov said he cannot comment because he signed a non-disclosure agreement with the authorities. 

In November 2021, CPJ called the Ministry of Interior’s press service but the phone was not answered. CPJ also emailed a request for comment to the Belarusian National Press Center, which covers the activities of the president, the national assembly, the council of ministers, the Belarus president’s administration, and other government bodies, but did not receive any response.