Yesterday, a Belarusian court sentenced two journalists to up to 2 1/2 years of community service after finding them guilty of libeling President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. The two journalists, who worked for the newspaper "Pahonya," wrote a story critical of Lukashenka during the presidential campaign last autumn. Analysts believe the sentences could mark a new stage in Lukashenka's fight against the country's independent media and are further proof of the deteriorating situation in the country.
Prague, 25 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A Belarusian court in the city of Hrodna yesterday sentenced two journalists, the editor of the regional newspaper "Pahonya," Mikola Markevich, and reporter Pavel Mazheyka, to up to 2 1/2 years of community service. The court found them guilty of libeling President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
The sentences are more lenient than the jail terms of the same duration the prosecutor was asking for. The journalists have 10 days to appeal.
Markevich and Mazheyka wrote a story critical of Belarusian President Lukashenka during the presidential campaign last September. Police confiscated all copies of the issue before it was distributed, and the Supreme Court of Arbitration ordered "Pahonya" to be closed. The newspaper is still published in an Internet version.
Defense lawyer Syarhey Tsurko said yesterday that the verdict is politically motivated and violates the Belarusian Constitution. "In this situation, I think this verdict is anticonstitutional. This is an anticonstitutional decision that completely flies in the face of constitutional norms and guarantees that are declared in the Belarusian Constitution. This is an extremely harsh punishment, a very harsh punishment. This is the first such verdict in the history of Belarus," Tsurko said.
Under the community-service sentencing, Markevich and Mazheyka will have to live in a place named by the state and will have to perform physical labor. It is still unclear where the journalists will stay and what jobs they will have to perform. Analysts say it could be work on a state-owned collective farm or in a state-owned factory.
Markevich, speaking last Friday in court, pleaded not guilty and claimed he was being punished for writing the truth about Lukashenka. "They simply appointed me to be guilty, guilty because during the presidency of Lukashenka, people are disappearing, guilty because the media writes about these facts," Markevich said.
The article accused Lukashenka of ordering the disappearances of his political opponents and of violating the freedom of the Belarusian media.
There have been a number of disappearances of well-known figures in Belarus in the past few year. In 1999, former Interior Minister Yurii Zakharenko vanished. Four months later, opposition politician Viktor Goncar disappeared. On 7 July 2000, Dmitrii Zavadskii, a cameraman with Russian television channel ORT, went missing. Their whereabouts are still unknown.
Catherine Fitzpatrick is the executive director of the International League of Human Rights, a nongovernmental organization based in New York. Fitzpatrick, reacting to the verdict, told RFE/RL that the decision of the court is "very bad news." She said the verdict means a new stage of repressions may be in the offing in Belarus.
She said it is getting harder and harder to attract world attention to the worsening situation in Belarus. She believes the international community should take firmer actions against what is happening in Minsk. "There should be consequences [for Belarus], but not just simple statements, saying that everybody deplores those actions and just asking [the Belarusian authorities] to release the journalists. There should be more tangible political consequences," Fitzpatrick said.
Fitzpatrick did not specify what actions should be taken. She did say, however, that she is upset by the passive position of the U.S. government, which has not yet made an official statement defending the journalists.
Kiril Koktysh is an authority on Belarus and the author of "The Transformation of the Political Regime in Belarus." Koktysh works at the Institute of International Relations in Moscow. He told RFE/RL he believes there is nothing extraordinary in the verdict. "This event could be valued [by others] as something extraordinary. However, it is a quite routine and an ordinary event for Belarus after 1996," Koktysh.
Koktysh said the Belarusian authorities are used to taking tough actions against antigovernment activists, including journalists. Demonstrators, he said, are often beaten and detained. He said the referendum of 1996 granted dictatorial rights to Lukashenka and that there appears to be no place for free media in Belarus.
Koktysh said that in the capital, Minsk, some independent newspapers, such as the daily "Beloruskaya delovaya gazeta," continue to be published, but that only the country's small political elite, concentrated in the capital, reads them. Those people, he believes, are completely cut from the problems of the rest of society.
Koktysh said the problems of present-day Belarus are much bigger than repression of one or two journalists. The whole of Belarusian society is fragmented and the government wants to keep it that way, Koktysh said. "The authorities do not bother very much about what a group of Minsk intellectuals think," he said. "However, they are not inclined to tolerate any new seedbeds of opposition. It is worth remembering that 'Pahonya' was a newspaper published in the province, in Hrodna."
He said that no one, except the small group of elites, will consider the verdict in Hrodna a tragedy or even pay the slightest attention to it.
(RFE/RL's Belarusian Service contributed to this story.)