Ales Bialiatski & Andrzej Poczobut by Lucy Popescu

Lucy Popescu

Ales Bialiatski & Andrzej Poczobut

 

On 3 March, a court in Minsk sentenced Belarusian writer and Nobel Peace Prize winner Ales Bialiatski to ten years in prison on trumped-up charges of smuggling and of organising and financing actions that grossly violate public order. Bialiatski was tried alongside two colleagues from Viasna Human Rights Centre, Valiantsin Stefanovich and Uladzimir Labkovich, who were sentenced to nine years and seven years in prison respectively. Viasna campaigns on behalf of opposition activists who are harassed or persecuted by the Belarusian authorities. A fourth member, Zmister Salauyou, was tried in absentia and sentenced to eight years in prison.

In March 2021, the Belarusian Investigative Committee opened a case against Viasna as part of a crackdown on free speech. As its chairman, Bialiatski was summoned for questioning on 7 April 2021. He was detained in July, together with several Viasna colleagues. He was put on trial on smuggling charges in January of this year and convicted two months later.

Born on 25 September 1962, Bialiatski is an essayist and human rights defender. In December 2022, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize alongside the Russian human rights organisation Memorial and the Ukrainian human rights organisation Center for Civil Liberties. Bialiatski has been harassed by the Belarusian authorities before. On 4 August 2011, he was arrested on spurious charges of tax evasion – he had used personal bank accounts in Lithuania and Poland to fund Viasna as the organisation could not hold a bank account in Belarus. In November 2011, Bialiatski was convicted and sentenced to four and a half years’ imprisonment in a high-security prison colony. He was amnestied in June 2014.

Freedom of expression and association and the right to peaceful assembly continue to be severely constrained in Belarus. The authorities forced PEN Belarus to dissolve in August 2021. Scores of independent publishing houses have been raided or closed for promoting books by Belarusians or books written in the Belarusian language. PEN Belarus documented 1,390 human rights violations against cultural figures in 2022 alone. Six members of Viasna are currently behind bars.

Poczobut, aged fifty, is an essayist, journalist, columnist, blogger, poet and musician. He is a correspondent for Gazeta Wyborcza, a Polish daily newspaper, and also works for several Belarusian media outlets. Poczobut is currently serving an eight-year sentence in a medium-security penal colony, having been tried on trumped-up charges of inciting hatred and encouraging sanctions aimed at harming the national security of Belarus. A Belarusian and Polish dual national, Poczobut was detained on 25 March 2021 and spent almost two years behind bars before being put on trial. He reportedly has serious health problems and is routinely prevented from receiving personal correspondence.

His book System Białoruś (‘System Belarus’), published in 2013, explores President Lukashenko’s grip on Belarus. He has been harassed by the authorities for years and received a three-year suspended prison sentence in July 2011 for ‘libelling the president’.

Poczobut was initially charged with inciting hatred in connection with his coverage of the 2020 anti-government protests in Belarus, statements he made in support of the Polish minority in Belarus and his labelling of the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939 as ‘an act of aggression’. In August 2022, the charge of encouraging sanctions aimed at harming Belarus’s national security was added to the indictment. Two months later, his name was included on the ‘list of individuals involved in terrorist activities’.

Poczobut’s trial opened on 16 January 2023 behind closed doors and he was sentenced on 8 February. On 4 March, the Belarusian Association of Journalists reported that Poczobut had been placed in solitary confinement for a week for unknown reasons. Prison conditions in Belarus are dire and detainees rely on family members to bring in food, warm clothes and medicine.

Readers may like to send appeals to the Belarusian authorities expressing concern at the ongoing crackdown on independent media and human rights organisations; calling for the immediate release of Ales Bialiatski and Andrzej Poczobut; and seeking assurances that, pending their release, they are held in conditions that meet international standards and are given access to adequate health care and are allowed regular communication with their families and lawyers.

Send appeals to:

Oleg Matkin
Head of the Department for the Execution of Punishments
Ministry of Internal Affairs
Email: pismo@din.gov.by

Andrei Shved
Prosecutor General of the Republic of Belarus
Email: info@prokuratura.gov.by

Send messages of solidarity, in Russian if possible, to:

Ales Bialiatski
SIZO-1, vulica Valadarskaha 2
220030, Minsk, Belarus

Andrzej Poczobut
Prison No 1, vulica Kirava 1
230023, Hrodna, Belarus

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