January 7, 2011 - Updated on January 20, 2016

Interrogation, searches, arrests of journalists and activists in kgb-orchestrated crackdown

The authorities in Belarus are continuing a crackdown against journalists with a surge in searches, interrogations and arrests. Lawyers defending them are in turn finding themselves victims of retaliation. At the heart of these major operations, launched nearly three weeks ago, is the State Security Committee (KGB). The central role played by the political police in the current repression is evidence of real political regression. All diplomatic means should be used to secure the unconditional release of journalists, activists and politicians who are being detained or imprisoned. The pressure being brought to bear against those who are still at liberty, as well as the lawyers defending them, must cease. European governments must arrive at and act on a common position towards Belarus. These violations of fundamental rights are unacceptable on the part of a member state of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and an immediate neighbour of the European Union. Belsat and Nasha Niva in the firing line The KGB on 6 January 2011, questioned Viktoria Kolchyna a TV journalist working for Polish-based Belsat, who is currently working on a documentary about Belarusian journalists whose deaths have been linked to their work. She was working on the death of prominent journalist Oleg Bebenin, of the opposition group Charter 97 (Khartia-97), which he founded and headed up its news website. In the early hours of 4 January, KGB officers searched the home of Ales Barzenka, a journalist on the same station, seizing his partner’s computer. Spokesman for Belsat, Mikhaïl Yanchuk, said it was connected with an investigation opened by police in the capital Minsk into “rioting” on 19 December 2010. Barzenka himself was questioned the same day. Several other journalists working for the Polish television station have also come under pressure. Last week the premises of Belsat were searched, as was the apartment of journalist Kastiarina Tkachenka. Three staff members, including Tatiana Bublikova, who were arrested covering the protest demonstrations on 19 December 2010, were sentenced to between 10 and 15 days in prison. A photo-journalist on the privately-owned weekly Nasha Niva on 3 January received anonymous telephone threats after she refused to reply to questions from the KGB. The unknown caller told her that she would soon be “very pale, toothless and with a bloodied mouth”. Earlier that day Tatsiana Haurylchuk had gone to the offices of the State Security Committee along with her lawyer. She left the building after the officers refused to allow her lawyer to be present during questioning. A few days previously, on 31 December, four KGB officers had searched her home looking for material linked to post-election demonstrations. Her camera, computer and memory cards were seized. Another photographer on Nasha Niva, Yulia Daraskevich, received similar treatment on the same day. Lawyers and human rights defenders also under pressure The homes of several human rights activists, opposition representatives and the premises of the Belarus Helsinki Committee were searched for any documents relating to the 19 December unrest. More than 20 people, including activists, politicians and journalists, are still being held, on suspicion of having organised the demonstrations in the capital on that day for which they face between three and 15 years in prison. Among them are Natalia Radzina, editor of the opposition website, Irina Khalip, correspondent for Russian independent tri-weekly Novaya Gazeta, and wife of Andrei Sannikau, a presidential candidate, who was himself arrested. Also arrested were many members of the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), a partner organisation of Reporters Without Borders: Pavel Seviarinets, one of the leaders of the Christian Democratic Party, Sergei Vozniak, editor of the weekly Tovarich, and Alexander Fiaduta, both involved in the campaign of another presidential candidate, Vladimir Niakliaieu, and Zmitser Bandarinka, one of those heading the election campaign of Andrei Sannikau. The health of Natalia Radzina, who suffered a head injury on 19 December, is a source of concern and some confusion. Her mother, on 30 December, expressed alarm about her daughter’s wellbeing after her latest meeting with her lawyer who told her that her daughter “needed medical tests which she had been denied”, for headaches, bleeding from her ears and pain around her heart. But the lawyer, Mariana Siamechka, went back on what she had said, denying when questioned by Reporters Without Borders, that the journalist had any health problems. She said that she had met Radzina most recently on 29 December and that she had not complained of anything on that occasion. Lawyers who agree to defend activists and journalists suspected of organising the 19 December protests are working under heavy pressure from the justice ministry, which has struck off lawyer Valientyna Busko, suspecting her of taking part in the demonstrations and called on the Minsk bar to take disciplinary action against the council for Sannikau, Pavel Sapelka. The administration accused him of having made “inappropriate remarks about the bar (…) and questioning the actions of the justice ministry (..) saying it was tantamount to putting government pressure on public lawyers”. The justice ministry referred the case to the information ministry, calling on it to investigate what it considered “biased” media coverage of the actions of the lawyers for Anatol Liabedzka, leader of the United Civil Party and Natalia Radzina.