CPJ condemns Belarus ‘witch hunt’ after three BelaPAN journalists sentenced to lengthy prison terms

07.10.2022 Source: CPJ

Belarusian authorities must immediately release Andrei Aliaksandrau, Dzmitry Navazhylau, and Iryna Leushyna, three former and current employees of independent Belarusian news agency BelaPAN who were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 4 to 14 years on various charges, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Thursday.

All three have denied the charges, and Leushyna and Navazhylau plan to appeal the verdict, according to former BelaPAN correspondent Tanya Korovenkova, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app. CPJ was unable to verify whether Aliaksandrau intends to appeal.

BelaPAN covered the nationwide 2020 protests demanding President Aleksandr Lukashenko resign, as CPJ has documented. On November 1, 2021, the State Security Committee of Belarus declared BelaPAN an extremist group, media reported.

“CPJ is alarmed by today’s sentencing of three BelaPAN journalists in a politically motivated case and denounces the witch hunt against the country’s leading independent news agency,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, in New York. “Belarusian authorities must immediately release Andrei Aliaksandrau, Dzmitry Navazhylau, Iryna Leushyna, and all other imprisoned members of the press, and let the media work freely.”

On Thursday, October 6, a court in Minsk, the capital, convicted Aliaksandrau, founder and chief editor of the news website Belaruski Zhurnal and former deputy director of the independent news agency BelaPAN, of high treason, creating an extremist group, large-scale tax evasion, and “organizing or participating in gross violations of public order,” those reports said.

The court sentenced him to 14 years in prison and fined him 32,000 Belarusian rubles (US$12,600). Aliaksandrau has been detained since January 12, 2021.

Former BelaPAN director Navazhylau was convicted of creating an extremist group and large-scale tax evasion, sentenced to 6 years in prison, and fined 22,400 Belarusian rubles (US$8,820), those reports said. He has been detained since August 18, 2021.

BelaPAN director and chief editor Leushyna was convicted of creating an extremist group and sentenced to 4 years in prison. She was detained on August 18, 2021.

The closed-door trial began on June 6, 2022, and was suspended for two months in June and nearly two weeks in September, according to reports by the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), a banned local advocacy and trade group. Due to the secrecy of the procedure, the penalties requested by the state prosecutor were not disclosed before the verdict, BAJ reported.

Belarus was the world’s fifth-worst jailer of journalists, with at least 19 journalists behind bars on December 1, 2021, when CPJ published its most recent prison census.