The fallout from Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s offensive on dissenters in his country continues almost four months after the disputed December elections that saw him continue his already 16-year hold on the office.
After announcing his victory on Dec. 19, many Belarusians took to the streets in protest of the vote counts, which they say were rigged. Hundreds were arrested, many were beaten and some of the more high-profile victims have alleged torture in prison. At least 20 of those arrested were journalists.
One of those journalists was Andrzej Poczobut, a Belarusian correspondent for the Polish daily newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza. He was arrested for taking part in an unsanctioned demonstration which he was covering for the paper. He spent 15 days in jail under harsh conditions (but claims he was not tortured) and since his release has been charged two more times and had three of his computers confiscated by the KGB. He now faces up to two years in prison for the most recent charge of “insulting” Lukashenko in a series of news articles. He spoke to The Prague Post after news of the most recent charge hit the media. The story ran in our April 6 edition, but the full interview – conducted over e-mail with the help of our soon-to-be intern Gil Kazimirov (who, thankfully, speaks Russian … and about 70 other languages) – can be read below.
The Prague Post: What did you say that was considered an insult to Lukashenko?
Andrzej Poczobut: In the letter decreeing the opening of a criminal investigation against me, the prosecution mentioned in its complaints eight articles in the Gazeta Wyborcza, one publication in a Belorusian web-based newspaper and one entry in my personal blog. However, what in particular offended Lukashenko in my publications was not mentioned in the decree. It merely lists the titles of my publications and contains the groundless allegation that I offended Lukashenko. I don’t agree with this. I don’t think I have offended Lukashenko. Yes, I criticized him, yes, I sometimes used irony in my description of his character because his behavior and statements are often funny, but I have never offended him.
TPP:This is the third time you have been charged since the Dec. 19 elections – what were the other charges?
AP: I was one of tens of journalists detained on Dec. 19 during the heating up of the opposition’s demonstrations. I was charged with participation in a protest not sanctioned by the authorities. Despite the absurdity of the situation, everyone, including the judge who ruled in my case, knew that I am a journalist and that during the protests I was fulfilling my professional responsibilities [as a journalist]. The trial was a farce – I was basically denied the right to defense – as for example the court refused to include the December 20 edition of Gazeta Wyborcza which ran my article on the very first page and it refused to interview witnesses who could confirm my innocence … There was a political order for my arrest and the judge complied with this order.
TPP: How were you informed that you were being charged? Did you know anything before prosecutors searched your apartment?
AP: I was summoned to the prosecution’s office and there the investigator showed me the charges. They immediately wanted to interrogate me but given the unfounded nature of the order, I refused to testify until the trial. I did not know there would be a search. It was conducted by the KGB. It was very important for them to take away my computer and thereby limit my ability to work. Since December 19, the KGB has taken away three of my computers.
TPP: You went to jail for 15 days for one of your previous charges. We’ve spoken to others who were imprisoned after the elections and they say they were tortured. Were you? Are you afraid to return to prison?
AP: No, I have not experienced torture. I was not detained in a KGB prison, and it was there, according to a number of political prisoners, that torture was used. I was kept in the prison of the Interior Ministry. Conditions there were harsh. Prisoners sleep on the floor and there are no pillows, mattresses or blankets. The cell was very cold. One of the barred windows was damaged and there was no heating so it was very cold. In the morning the person wakes up because he is shaking from the cold. When I complained to the prison guards, they responded with laughter. It was clear that they put me in a cold cell on purpose. However, there was no physical pressure exerted upon me. When I was released the warden tried to apply psychological pressure to force me not to talk about the conditions of detention and not to talk to journalists. I replied that this was not possible. I am aware that at any moment I could be back behind bars. It is not a pleasant feeling.
TPP: Do you regret publishing the articles?
AP: No, I do not regret writing the articles criticizing Lukashenko. Belarusian authorities do a lot to make the world forget about what is happening in Belarus. The opening of a criminal case against me by the KGB is a kind of recognition of the quality of my work. The authorities could not respond to my arguments and so they resorted to the use force to shut me up.
TPP: You have received a great deal of support from the international community, including Poland, where they are granting asylum to anyone opposing the Lukashenko regime … are you considering or have you considered fleeing Belarus for Poland?
AP: I’m not going to leave the country. I will continue to work for Gazety Wyborcza, I will write articles for the Belarusian media and I will continue blogging. The editors of Gazety Wyborcza offered me and my family to move to Poland, but I am a citizen of Belarus and I love the city. I did not do anything wrong, so I’m not going to leave. If I leave in this situation it would be the equivalent of admitting my guilt.
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