Journalist risks jail for criticizing President: Urgent appeal by Amnesty International
A journalist, Andrzej Poczobut, is at risk of being sentenced to five years imprisonment in Belarus after being arrested for criticizing the Belarusian President. He is a prisoner of conscience, detained solely for exercising his right to freedom of expression.
Andrzej Poczobut, the correspondent of Polish daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza and a prominent Polish-Belarusian minority activist, was arrested on 21 June in his apartment in Grodno, western Belarus. He is accused of “libelling the President” under Article 367 (2) of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus for articles that were published in Belarusian independent media, although he has not been formally charged. He could face a sentence of up to five years’ imprisonment.
In his articles, Andrzej Poczobut criticized the process and decision in the criminal case of Uladzislau Kavalyou and Dzmitry Kanavalau, who were executed in March 2012 in connection with a series of bomb attacks in Belarus. He also criticized President Lukashenka’s stance towards the European Union and the Belarusian authorities’ response to a wave of “silent protests” in the country. On 21 June, his apartment was searched and his computer and documents were confiscated.
In March 2011, Andrzej Poczobut was charged with “insulting the President” and “libelling the President” for articles that he had written for the Gazeta Wyborcza. On 5 July 2011, he received a three-year suspended prison sentence.
Amnesty International believes that Andrzej Poczobut’s arrest is part of a longstanding pattern of harassment of civil society activists and journalists by the Belarusian authorities. Following the Presidential elections in December 2010, there has been an unprecedented deterioration in the human rights situation in the country. Key opposition figures have been detained, ill-treated and convicted in unfair trials. Critical NGOs, civil society activists and journalists face continuing harassment.
Please write immediately in Belarusian, Russian or your own language:
n Calling on the authorities to release Andrzej Poczobut immediately and unconditionally;
n Urging them to guarantee the right to freedom of expression in line with their international human rights obligations, including Article 19 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights.
The right to freedom of expression in Belarus is guaranteed in Article 33 of the Belarusian Constitution, and international treaties Belarus has ratified and therefore is legally bound to observe. Amnesty International considers that the use of the Belarusian Criminal Code to curb the legitimate exercise of the right to freedom of expression violates the government’s international human rights obligations, particularly under Article 19 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights. Amnesty International recognizes that Article 19 of the ICCPR specifies that certain restrictions on the right to freedom of expression may be imposed if they are necessary to respect the rights or reputations of others, or for the protection of national security or public order. However, Article 19 also recognizes wide latitude for robust criticism of government and other public officials. Criminal law should therefore not be used in such a way as to stifle criticism of state authorities’ policies or measures or to intimidate those who voice legitimate concerns about the actions of state authorities.
Number of Articles of the Belarusian Criminal Code is being used by the Belarusian authorities for these very purposes. Belarus retains criminal defamation provisions in its Criminal Code in Article 188 (libel), Article 189 (insult), Article 367 (libel in relation to the President), Article 368 (insult of the President) and Article 369 (insult of a government official). Libel and insult contained in media sources can be prosecuted under Articles 188 and 189, which carry a sentence of up to two years’ imprisonment. Libelling the President (Article 367) can result in up to five years in prison.