The International Press Institute (IPI) on 30 March denounced Belarusian authorities' search of the apartment of Polish-Belarusian journalist Andrzej Poczobut, and their seizure of a computer and other items.
The search Tuesday morning followed news Monday that the state prosecutor in Grodno opened a criminal investigation against Poczobut, a correspondent with Polish daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, for allegedly insulting Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
Poczobut said he was told that the Belarusian security service, which is still called the KGB, had pressed for the charge based on his reports for the newspaper, posts to his blog and posts to an opposition website named "Belarusian Partisan". He said the KGB did not elaborate on what specifically offended the president.
If convicted, Poczobut faces up to two years in prison.
He described the search yesterday in a telephone conversation with representatives of Gazeta Wyborcza.
"Three KGB officers entered my flat in the morning," he said. "They confiscated my computer. The KGB men showed me a warrant of 'arrest' regarding my belongings. They walked around my apartment, and selected a few valuables to confiscate, including my DVD player and my computer. Other items selected by them - like a refrigerator, and a TV set - were listed, and I was informed that I'm forbidden to sell or remove them from the apartment."
Poczobut acknowledged that he was highly critical of and sarcastic about Lukashenko's rule, but he said his writings could not be treated as an offence.
The journalist served 15 days in prison last month for allegedly participating in an unsanctioned protest rally on 19 December in Minsk following Lukashenko's disputed re-election to a fourth term of office. Lukashenko received 80 percent of the vote in an election opponents and international monitors say was rigged.
Police arrested Poczobut while he covered the rally, but freed him the next day.
Prosecutors later charged him with participating in an illegal gathering and he was sentenced to pay a 600 Euro fine. The sentence was increased to include imprisonment after prosecutors appealed the verdict.
Poczobut is an activist with the Association of Poles in Belarus, an organization regularly persecuted by Belarusian authorities. Independent Belarus website charter97.org reported last week that Poczobut had been put on a list of persons restricted from leaving Belarus.
Piotr Stasinski, Gazeta Wyborcza deputy editor-in-chief and a member of IPI's Executive Board, reported that Poczobut has been a frequent target of government-inspired harassment in Belarus, and that authorities repealed Poczobut's press accreditation in 2009. Stasinski said the KGB stopped Poczobut in January in Grodno and questioned him for three hours during which they repeatedly hit and threatened him with an eight-year prison sentence if he appeared at another opposition rally.
Fellow Gazeta Wyborcza Deputy Editor-in-Chief Jaroslaw Kurski commented yesterday:
"A dictator fears his countrymen, fears what they think and say. He fears the word that he cannot control and censor. Andrzej Poczobut's prosecution is yet another instance in which a journalist is repressed for bravely performing his job; for writing the truth the regime doesn't approve of."
IPI Press & Communications Manager Anthony Mills added: "No journalist, anywhere, should have to fear arrest and persecution because of their work. In any healthy democracy, journalists should have the right to be critical of the authorities."
This press release is supported by the South and East Europe Media Organization (SEEMO), an IPI affiliate.