Police stage fresh wave of raids on independent journalists
Policemen raided the Minsk-based offices of the pro-opposition newspaper Narodnaya Volya and the Charter’97 news site, as well as the apartment of journalist Iryna Khalip and her husband, opposition politician Andrey Sannikaw, seizing computer equipment and electronic storage media.
The raids were sanctioned by the Homyel regional prosecutor’s office.
The first wave was conducted this past February. The police then searched the workplace of Narodnaya Volya journalist Maryna Koktysh and raided the apartment of the newspaper`s editor, Svyatlana Kalinkina. Ms. Khalip and her husband were interrogated in connection with the case at Minsk’s Partyzanski district police department on March 3.
Earlier this month, the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) appealed to Prosecutor General Ryhor Vasilevich over the police actions.
"The February 17 and 26 raids revived memories of 2008 raids that were also conducted allegedly as part of the investigation of defamatory statements, then about the President of the Republic of Belarus, at the apartments of journalists across Belarus," the BAJ said. "Then, as now, the search warrants did not indicate any specific grounds but only mentioned that some objects that might be important for the investigation might be found at the searched addresses. Then, as now, the people whose addresses were raided were neither suspects nor accused in the case."
The BAJ expressed fears that the raids were "actually" aimed at intimidating and obstructing the journalists.
When reached by BelaPAN on Tuesday, BAJ legal expert Andrey Bastunets said that only a fresh series of raids had come in response to the Association’s appeal.
He said that the searches caused grave concern.
“Firstly, they target journalists’ addresses, which can be viewed as a gross infringement on freedom of expression and freedom of journalistic activities,” Mr. Bastunets said. “Secondly, the raids are conducted allegedly as part of the investigation of a defamation case. The entire state apparatus is engaged in the investigation of this single case. It makes one suggest a certain abuse and disregard for the constitutional provision stipulating the equality of all before the law. The defamation case was opened at the request of one high-ranking KGB official, but the entire state apparatus joined the investigation.”
The BAJ has informed international press freedom watchdogs, including the International Federation of Journalists and Reporters without Borders, of the raids, Mr. Bastunets said.
“I think that the searches will have very negative effects on Belarus’ image,” he added.
The hunting case, in which four high-ranking police officials were involved, led to a series of revelations about corrupt practices within the police and security agencies and Alyaksandr Lukashenka even publicly accused one of the officials of having hunting lodges built illegally in Zhobin.
The trial of the four officials ended on February 17, with the Supreme Court sentencing three to prison terms of three to four years and exempting the fourth accused from criminal liability under last year’s amnesty law.
Last year Ivan Korzh, former chief of the KGB Homyel regional department, went to court, seeking the refutation of remarks that appeared on the Charter`97 website in a story run under the headline “Relatives of arrested policemen complaining about dictatorship.”
A judge of the Homyel District Court in October 2009 upheld the defamation suit against Halina Baranaw, the mother of one of the four police officials.