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Journalist Katsyaryna Borisevich at her court hearing in Minsk on February 19.

MINSK -- A physician and a journalist in Belarus have gone on trial for allegedly disclosing information about a protester killed during a crackdown on demonstrations against authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

The Moscow district court in Minsk started the trial of Artsyom Sarokin and Katsyaryna Barysevich on February 19 with a decision to hold the process behind closed doors claiming "personal medical data" would be involved in the case.

The decision to bar the public sparked protests by dozens of supporters who were at the court.

Journalist Barysevich, from the online newspaper Tut.by, and Sarokin, a doctor with the Minsk ambulance service, were arrested on November 19 after Barysevich cited Sarokin in an article she wrote about Raman Bandarenka, who had died several days earlier from injuries he sustained in a vicious beating by a group of masked assailants. Activists had said the attackers were affiliated with the authorities.

Thousands Bid Farewell To Dead Belarusian Protester
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Belarusian officials have claimed that Bandarenka's attackers had nothing to do with the authorities or riot police, adding that Bandarenka was drunk when he was attacked.

Barysevich wrote that no alcohol had been found in Bandarenka's blood, information she obtained from Sarokin, whose ambulance team provided Bandarenka with medical attention and took samples for tests right after he was found severely beaten.

The two have been charged with disclosing medical data. Barysevich is additionally charged with instigating a crime by pushing Sarokin to share the medical data. If found guilty, the two could face up to three years in prison.

In late November, Amnesty International recognized Sarokin and Barysevich as prisoners of conscience and demanded their immediate release.

Doctor Artsyom Sarokin at the Minsk court hearing on February 19.
Doctor Artsyom Sarokin at the Minsk court hearing on February 19.

Bandarenka is one of several people to have been killed during the protests demanding Lukashenka's resignation after he was announced as the winner in an August presidential election.

Outrage over what was seen by both opposition forces and the general public as a rigged vote to hand Lukashenka a sixth term in office brought tens of thousands onto the streets.

Security officials have cracked down hard on the demonstrators, arresting thousands, including dozens of journalists who covered the rallies, and pushing most of the top opposition figures out of the country.

Some rights organizations say there is credible evidence of torture being used by security officials against some of those detained.

Lukashenka, who has run the country since 1994, has denied any wrongdoing with regard to the election and refuses to negotiate with the opposition on stepping down and holding new elections.

'It's A War': Journalists In Belarus Report Unprecedented Crackdown On Media
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On February 18, Amnesty International published a document about four Belarusian artists and performers -- Vola Semchanka, Illya Yasinski, Andrus Tokidang, and Alyaksey Sanchuk, who have continued to perform and have challenged Lukashenka and his government despite being arrested and beaten.

"Today, they have also become symbols of courage and solidarity, as hundreds of Belarusian artists are being targeted by the government for their artistic expression of dissenting views. Some have been fired from their jobs, others have been detained and tortured, yet others are languishing behind bars awaiting trial and facing long prison sentences," Amnesty said.

The European Union, United States, Canada, and other countries have refused to recognize Lukashenka, 66, as the legitimate leader of Belarus and have slapped him and senior Belarusian officials with sanctions in response to the “falsification” of the vote and postelection crackdown.

Turkmen journalist Soltan Achilova (file photo)

A 71-year-old Turkmen journalist Soltan Achilova has issued a rare rebuke of the Central Asian nation's authoritarian President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, criticizing him and his government in a video posted on YouTube for failing to provide proper heating and water supply to Ashgabat residents during winter.

In the video statement that appeared on YouTube late on February 18, Achilova, who has previously worked as a reporter for RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, said she will no longer call Berdymukhammedov "respected" because "millions of Turkmen had stopped respecting you long ago."

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov (file photo)
Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov (file photo)

Such an act of public dissent is a rare occurrence in Turkmenistan, where Berdymukhammedov has run the former Soviet republic with an iron fist since 2006, becoming the center of an elaborate personality cult.

"You have always said that your main goal is to take care of your people. But in fact, you are taking care of such things as to listen to how others praise you, to ride a horse, to drive a race car, to swim in a lake, to fish, and to sing songs," Achilova said, pointing to numerous television programs showing Berdymukhammedov's hobbies and his leisure activities.

Turkmenistan's Singer, Race-Car Driver, Jockey, Autocrat
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Achilova added that the heating system in her apartment had been switched off several times in recent days, which she called an intentional warning over her journalistic activities.

Last month, Achilova was named as one of three finalists for the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders for her reports from Turkmenistan, one of the most repressive countries in the world.

In her video statement, Achilova said that seven letters she sent to Berdymukhammedov had been rejected by Ashgabat's central post office. According to Achilova, post office officials told her that the letters had not been sent to the president due to an equipment malfunction.

"Those letters were intentionally destroyed. This is what our country is facing now," Achilova said, accusing the government of refusing to talk to people.

Achilova also criticized Berdymukhammedov and his government for what she called a "failure to provide" ordinary people with decent food at acceptable prices, adding that "miserable pensions and salaries in the country" do not provide people with the means to shop for regular items at local markets.

"Our fellow Turkmen citizens working in foreign countries have staged several protests recently demanding your resignation. We join those protests and demand your resignation as well because you are incapable of carrying out your duties. We are suffering and you do not even care about it. All you are capable of is ruining our homes and causing our people to suffer," Achilova said.

Based in Ashgabat, Achilova is currently a contributor to the Vienna-based independent news website Khronika Turkmenistana (Chronicles of Turkmenistan), which focuses on news and developments in Turkmenistan.

Turkmen authorities, who don't tolerate an independent press, have targeted Achilova in the past for her work as a journalist.

A 71-year-old Turkmen journalist Soltan Achilova has issued a rare rebuke of the Central Asian nation's authoritarian President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov

This year's Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders was given to jailed Chinese lawyer and human rights activist Yu Wensheng earlier this month.

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"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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