Yauhen Merkis

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Belarusian authorities detained former journalist Yauhen Merkis in September 2022 and charged him with facilitating extremist activities. He is being held in pretrial detention and is facing up to six years in jail. 

On September 13, 2022, law enforcement authorities in the southeastern city of Homel detained and searched the home of Merkis, a former freelance reporter with the independent Poland-based online television station Belsat TV, according to a Telegram post by Belarusian human rights group Viasna and a report by local advocacy and trade group Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ). Both Viasna and BAJ are banned in Belarus but continue to operate unofficially.

Law enforcement also searched the home of Merkis’ girlfriend Sviatlana Kastsenka on that day, BAJ reported. On September 14, police searched the apartment of Merkis’ father and seized phones and a laptop, Viasna reported.

On September 15, human rights group Homelskaya Viasna reported that Merkis was charged with facilitating extremist activity under Article 361-4, Part 1, of the Belarusian criminal code. If found guilty, he faces up to six years in jail. 

Merkis was previously detained while covering protests in 2017, as CPJ documented. He also reported on anti-government protests in 2020 for Belsat TV, according to BAJ. 

BAJ reported that Merkis stopped working in journalism after Belarusian authorities labeled a number of independent media outlets as extremist organizations, as CPJ documented. Authorities labeled Belsat TV as extremist in July 2021, according to news reports, and also blocked the outlet’s website and social media accounts within Belarus.

BAJ deputy head Barys Haretski told CPJ via email that he believes Merkis’ prosecution was in retaliation for his previous reporting for Belsat TV. 

Merkis is held at the Pretrial Detention Center No. 3 in Homel, according to Viasna. Haretski told CPJ in September 2022 that Merkis did not complain of any health issues.

In September 2022, CPJ called the Ministry of Interior’s press service, but nobody answered the phone. CPJ emailed the Belarusian Investigative Committee but did not receive any replies. CPJ emailed Belsat TV but did not receive an answer.