Journalist accused of slandering Belarus leader

(Reuters) - The Belarus correspondent of a Polish newspaper has been arrested on charges of slandering and insulting President Alexander Lukashenko, a Polish non-governmental organisation said on Sunday.

A spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton also criticised the arrest of Andrzej Poczobut, saying he had been held while on the way to meet an EU delegation in Minsk.

Poczobut, who wrote for the daily Gazeta Wyborcza, was detained on April 6 and charged with the offences on Saturday night, the Union of Poles in Belarus said.

The charge of slandering the president carries a jail term of up to four years while the lesser charge of insulting the head of state can bring up to two years in prison.

Poczobut was said to have committed the offences in articles he wrote in the newspaper and on an opposition web site. Police could not be reached for a comment.

Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland's top daily, is working with the Warsaw government and European Union to help Poczobut, the newspaper's editor Roman Imielski told Reuters.

"We will do everything in our power to help him," he said. "We have people on the spot and we are working through the Polish Foreign Ministry and EU to ease his plight."

No date has been announced for his trial.


In Brussels, Ashton's spokesman urged Belarus to respect human rights and freedom of the press. "The EU calls upon the Belarusian authorities to end at once the prosecution of independent journalists for slander or other politically-motivated charges," he said in a statement.

"The EU strongly condemns all harassment, arrests, and intimidation of representatives of the Belarusian independent media as well as violations of the fundamental human rights."

The Union of Poles in Belarus, of which Poczobut is a leading member, represents the country's Polish minority which accounts for about four percent of the population and is an outspoken critic of the Lukashenko regime.

Its status in Belarus has often led to diplomatic disputes between Minsk and Warsaw which has accused Lukashenko in the past of harassing members of the Polish minority.

Relations between Minsk and Warsaw sharply deteriorated late last year after a police crackdown on a Dec. 19 opposition rally against a parliamentary election that handed Lukashenko a fourth term in power.

Many leading figures in the political opposition were rounded up. Western governments, who supported the opposition's charges that the election was fraudulently conducted, have applied sanctions against Lukashenko including a travel ban on him and leading associates.

(Reporting by Andrei Makhovsky and Rob Strybel; Writing by Richard Balmforth; editing by David Stamp)


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