Syarhey Hardzievich, a correspondent with the independent regional news website Pershy Region, is serving an 18-month sentence in prison on charges of insulting Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko and two police officers, as well as defaming one of those officers.
Hardzievich is Pershy Region’s correspondent for the town of Drahichyn in the country’s southwest but often covers stories in other parts of the surrounding Brest region. Since the start of nationwide protests in August 2020 following incumbent President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s disputed reelection, Hardzievich and Pershy Region have frequently reported on local protests and instances of alleged police violence in Brest.
On December 22, 2020, Brest police arrested Hardzievich when he was on his way from Drahichyn to Brest and charged him with insulting Lukashenko and two police officers, according to Viasna, a banned human rights organization that continues to operate in Belarus unofficially. They 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 and Pershy Region editor Pavel Daylid, who spoke to CPJ by messaging app.
During Hardzievich’s 2021 trial the prosecution claimed that he ran a local news commentary group chat on the messaging app Viber, where he had insulted two police officers allegedly involved in arresting protestors and reposted a blogger’s Facebook post describing Lukashenko as a “rat.”
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.
The journalist’s lawyers argued that prosecutors had not proved that Hardzievich himself made the comments and that the chat group, whose records could have proved Hardzievich’s innocence, had been improperly deleted before it could be examined, according to Pershy Region.
On August 2, the Ivanavskiy District Court in Brest convicted Hardzievich on all charges, according to news reports, coverage of the trial by his employer, and Daylid. In addition to the 18- month sentence, the court ordered Hardzievich to pay damages of 2,000 rubles (US$793) to each of the police officers, according to those sources. Hardzievich denied the charges and said the sentence was in retaliation for his reporting on the anti-government protests, 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 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.”
On September 28, 2021, the Brest regional court denied Hardzievich’s appeal, Pershy Region reported.
Hardzievich is being held in Jail No. 17 in the city of Shklow in the central eastern part of the country, according to Viasna.
In July 2021, according to Pershy Region, Hardzievich fainted and on July 22 was hospitalized in the Drahichyn Central Regional Hospital. After recovering, he wrote to his wife that the conditions in prison were “bearable,” according to Pershy Region.
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.