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Activists in Belarus met with Minsk Mayor Andrey Shorats.

MINSK -- City authorities in Minsk have agreed to temporarily suspend a controversial construction project adjacent to a protected area that has led to nearly two weeks of protests.

Activists in Belarus met with Minsk Mayor Andrey Shorats and his associates on March 1 to discuss the demands of demonstrators, who oppose construction of a business center next to the Kurapaty preserve near Minsk.

The Kurapaty preserve is protected to commemorate at least 30,000 people who were killed and buried there by Soviet authorities during the 1930s and '40s.

Dozens of protesters have blocked construction near the preserve by camping at the construction site since February 20.

They insist the project desecrates the memory of thousands of people who were victims of the Soviet state under dictator Josef Stalin.

Shorats on March 1 met for 90 minutes with the delegation of activists, which included Christian Democratic Party Chairman Paval Sevyarynets, Belarusian Popular Front Party Chairman Alyaksey Yanukevich, historian Marat Haravy, and Kurapty resident Yury Stsepanishchau.

The delegates told RFE/RL the meeting ended with a decision by Shorats to suspend construction for at least one week.

They said Shorats agreed that a decision on whether to continue the construction would be made only after nationwide public discussions on the issue.

Meanwhile, demonstrators have vowed that they will remain at the site until the construction project is abandoned completely.

Journalist Mykola Semena after his court hearing in Crimea on February 28.

SIMFEROPOL -- A court in Russia-annexed Crimea has set March 20 for the start of a trial against an RFE/RL contributing correspondent who faces separatism-related charges for one of his articles.

Simferopol's Zheleznodorozhny District Court announced the trial date for Mykola Semena on February 28 at his preliminary hearing in a case that Moscow-installed authorities filed against him after Russia seized and annexed Crimea from Ukraine.

The 66-year-old Semena faces a possible five-year sentence on charges of calling for "the violation of the territorial integrity of Russia" in a 2015 article he wrote for RFE/RL's Krym.Realii (Crimea Realities) website.

Semena's lawyer Andriy Sabinin on February 28 filed a motion asking for the Simferopol court to return the case to investigators because of what he said were "mistakes by the linguistic experts."

Sabinin told RFE/RL that the prosecution's Russian translators "included their own judicial opinions" in the translations they filed as evidence with the court rather than presenting a literal translation of Semena's writing.

There was no immediate ruling from the court on Sabinin's motion.

Ahead of the February 28 hearing, Semena told RFE/RL he would argue that there is no evidence a crime was committed because "the status of Crimea is not clear, even within the framework of the Russian Federation."

Semena said Crimea "is a disputed territory which is the subject of an animated discussion all over the world," and that he has the right under international law and Russian legislation "to participate in this discussion" and express his point of view.

A Handful Of Independent Journalists

Semena, who was born in northeastern Ukraine in 1950, has been a journalist for 50 years and has lived and worked as a journalist in Crimea since the 1980s.

He is among a handful of independent journalists who continued reporting from Crimea without parroting the Kremlin line since Russia's March 2014 annexation of the territory.

Most journalists who refused to follow the Kremlin line either left the peninsula voluntarily, were forced out by authorities, or simply stopped working.

But Semena continued to report about the impact that the Russia-installed government was having on the lives of Crimean Tatars and others who disagreed with the annexation by the Kremlin -- that is, until he was detained on April 19, 2016 by agents from Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB).

Although he was released after being questioned, authorities ordered Semena not to leave Crimea.

WATCH: RFE/RL Contributor Denies Russian 'Separatism' Charges

RFE/RL Contributor Denies Russian 'Separatism' Charges
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Natalya Poklonskaya, who is now one of Crimea's deputies in Russia's State Duma, was the Russia-installed Prosecutor-General in Crimea who filed the charges against Semena.

Poklonskaya has also accused RFE/RL's Krym.Realii website of being "a harmful service" that provides "justification for acts of sabotage and extremism," and incites "ethnic hatred."

But the case against Semena has been widely criticized and dismissed as politically motivated by the United States, the European Union, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and international media watchdogs.

'Eliminating Pluralism'

Rights activists say the charges and trial are part of a Russian clampdown on independent media and dissent in Crimea.

Johann Bihr, the head of the Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk of Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said on February 28 that Semena "is being tried for using his right to free speech."

"After eliminating pluralism in Crimea, the Russian authorities are now targeting its last survivors," Bihr said.

Bihr called on authorities "to abandon this prosecution and to let him work freely," adding that "the international community must not forget Crimea and allow its population to disappear into this new information black hole."

Nina Ognianova, the Europe and Central Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said earlier in February that "criticizing authorities is not a crime."

Ognianova called on the region's Russian-backed authorities to "stop harassing journalists in Crimea."

RFE/RL President Thomas Kent has described the charges against Semena as "part of a concerted effort by Russian and Russian-backed authorities to obstruct RFE/RL's journalistic mission to provide an independent press to residents of Crimea."

With reporting by RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz and RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service

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About This Blog

"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.


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RFE/RL journalists take risks, face threats, and make sacrifices every day in an effort to gather the news. Our "Journalists In Trouble" page recognizes their courage and conviction, and documents the high price that many have paid simply for doing their jobs. More