Iryna Khalip freed from punishment, but she does not consider herself free
The Court of Minsk’s Partyzansky district waived today the criminal penalty imposed on journalist Iryna Khalip after she was sentenced to two years' imprisonment suspended for two years on May 16, 2011 for alleged involvement in the so-called mass riots in Minsk on December 19, 2010.
The trial was attended by over 50 people: representatives of the diplomatic corps, public figures, human rights defenders, friends and relatives of Mrs. Khalip, as well as numerous journalists.
Ahead of the trial a court clerk demanded to switch off all recording equipment and to abstain from taking photos and shooting video of the trial. This unreasonable decision outraged the media representatives. Iryna Khalip’s lawyer Hanna Bakhtsina made a remark to the court clerk, referring to the fact that the decision to ban photo and video coverage can only be taken by the judge.
At 9.45, the clerk invited Iryna Khalip and her lawyer into the corridor. They were taken the Judge’s office guarded by two police officers. It was clear that the trial had actually begun behind closed doors.
Disagreeing with this, finding no grounds for a closed hearing of the case, Iryna Khalip entered a motion to the court to allow an open session. However, Judge Ryta Shahrai denied the motion. In response, Mrs. Khalip demanded disqualification of the Judge.
At 10.20 the trial resumed and the Judge did not grant the petition for disqualification. However, the lawyer insisted on allowing an open trial and the Judge had to agree only if there were no audio, photo and video coverage of the trial. It later became known that during those arguments the Judge issued two warnings to lawyer Bakhtsina and warned Khalip on administrative responsibility for contempt of court.
At 10.50 the Judge read out the materials from the criminal-executive inspection of Partyzansky district police department of Minsk on the conditions of serving the punishment by Iryna Khalip and the results of inspections of the regime of serving the punishment, as well as an application from the criminal-executive inspection for the release from punishment. Prosecutor Sakalou supported the request. It was also supported by a representative of the inspection.
The Judge then read out at the request of the counsel a reference letter from Iryna Khalip’s employer. Dmitry Muratov, editor in chief of "Novaya Gazeta", in his characteristic pointed out that on December 19, 2010 Khalip fulfilled an editorial task covering the election.
As a result, the Judge announced her decision to waive the punishment of Iryna Khalip.
Commenting on the decision, Khalip told reporters, “If you think I am now free, it is not so. I realized this when we met Vasil Parfiankou and Uladzimir Yaromenak. What about today? There are no former political prisoners in Belarus. So I will not say "thank you" for the decision of the authorities.”
The court's decision was commented upon by a member of the Board of the Human Rights Center "Viasna" Uladzimir Labkovich, “Today's meeting is a landmark not only in its result, but also in the decision to free Iryna Khalip from punishment and, most importantly, in the process of the procedure itself. The absurd behavior of the Judge in trying to hide process from the eyes of journalists and the public, as well as unreasonably and unlawfully restricting the activities of members of the media during the trial indicate that Belarus keeps violating the rights of citizens to access to justice, and the right to disseminate and receive information, even within such formal court proceedings.”