Belarusian journalist Andrzej Poczobut, who reports on the country’s ethnic Polish minority, has been serving an eight-year sentence since being convicted of “inciting hatred” and “calling for sanctions aimed at harming national security” in February 2023. Authorities detained Poczobut in March 2021.
Poczobut is a political commentator and producer of Nad Niemnem, a television program focused on Belarus’ 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 15,000 followers at the time. Poczobut also provided commentary and analysis of the protests for regional news outlets.
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 operating from exile.
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. The charge carries a prison sentence of up to 12 years, according to Article 130, Part 3, of 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 Poczobut’s arrest, Belarusian authorities had detained the head of the Union of Poles in Belarus, Andzelika Barys, and sentenced her to 15 days in prison, according to RFE/RL.
On July 31, 2022, media reported that the incitement charges stemmed from, among other things, Poczobut’s coverage of 2020 anti-government protests in Belarus, statements he made in defense of the Polish minority in Belarus, and his labeling of the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939 as an act of aggression.
In mid-August 2022, authorities also charged Poczobut with "calls for sanctions aimed at harming national security," according to Viasna. That charge carries a punishment of up to 12 years in jail, under Article 361 of the criminal code.
On May 26, the Belarusian Supreme Court upheld Poczobut’s sentence, according to BAJ.
On June 23, the Belarusian Ministry of Interior added Poczobut to its list of people allegedly involved in extremist activity, according to BAJ.
The journalist had been arrested before. In March 2006, when he was editor of magazine Magazyn Polski na Uchodzstwie, he was 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, and tried him in a closed-door trial for allegedly insulting and libeling Lukashenko for articles he had written in the run-up to the December 2010 presidential election and its aftermath. A Belarusian court found him guilty on the libel charge, sentencing him to a three-year suspended prison term, while acquitting him on the insult charge, according to news reports.
Poczobut is held at Prison No. 1 in the northern city of Novopolotsk, according to Viasna.
On August 17, 2023, Poczobut’s wife Oksana posted on Facebook that the journalist had been placed in a punishment cell for a period of six months. While there, he cannot receive letters and is not being given medication for his serious heart problems, according to BAJ and media reports. As of late October 2023, Poczobut was still not receiving medication, according to media reports.
Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has 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.” In July 2023, Polish Ministry of Interior Mariusz Kamiński stated that Belarusian authorities had not shown “the slightest goodwill” toward releasing Poczobut.
CPJ contacted the journalist’s wife via messaging app in October 2023 and asked about her husband’s health status but did not receive any reply. In late 2021, she had told CPJ that Poczobut had serious heart problems.
In October 2023, CPJ called the Belarusian Ministry of Interior for comment, but nobody answered the phone. CPJ emailed the Belarusian Investigative Committee but did not receive any replies.