Reporters Without Borders (RSF) questions the circumstances of the arrest of a well-known Belarusian journalist who had collaborated on a documentary critical of President Lukashenko.
The journalist, Vladimir Chudentsov, was arrested by Belarusian customs officers for possession of drugs as he was about to cross the border into Poland by train on 21 November.
The customs officers claim they found 0.87 grams of cannabis in the clothes of Chudentsov, the editor of the independent online news agency by24.org. The police who searched his apartment later the same day claim that they also found drugs there.
According to his lawyer, the blood test carried out on Chudentsov showed no trace of any drug in his blood. He is now in preventive detention and is facing a possible sentence of two to five years in prison under article 328 of the criminal code on a charge of possessing or transporting drugs. No date has so far been set for the trial.
"The circumstances of Vladimir Chudentsov’s arrest raises the question why he was searched when Belarusian customs officers rarely check passengers as they are leaving the country," RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk said.
"Furthermore, it is strange that a journalist known for his prudence would carry drugs, especially as Belarus has draconian drug laws. If this case was fabricated, the use of such methods against a journalist would mark a disturbing escalation in Belarus’s suppression of the freedom to inform."
Chudentsov worked for state-owned media prior to 2013, when he launched by24.org, a news website that is very critical of both Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.
He recently collaborated with Stsiapan Svyatlu, a blogger known as NEXTA, in making a documentary critical of Lukashenko that has been viewed more than 1.8 million times on YouTube. NEXTA posted a video in support of Chudentsov on YouTube after his arrest.
When NEXTA organized an event in Minsk on 8 November, a reporter with the German public TV broadcaster ARD and his crew were detained by police for more than two hours to prevent them filming it.
Belarus is ranked 153rd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index.