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The 2-year-old daughter of imprisoned Belarusian blogger Ihar Losik looks at her father's photograph on the mobile phone of his wife, Darya Losik.

A group of lawmakers in the U.S. Congress has condemned the “unjust and illegitimate detainment” of Ihar Losik, a popular blogger and RFE/RL consultant jailed in Belarus, calling for his immediate release in the latest show of support from the highest echelons of government.

In a letter addressed to Losik on March 26, a bipartisan group of lawmakers said they stand “shoulder to shoulder” with him, his family, and all other Belarusians struggling in the country’s pro-democracy movement amid a violent government crackdown following a presidential election last August that authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka claimed to win and which the opposition says was rigged.

“We join the international community in strongly condemning your unjust and illegitimate detainment by the Belarusian authorities,” the seven lawmakers said in the letter. “We stand ready to hold those complicit in your illegitimate detention to account through targeted sanctions working with our friends and allies in the European Union.”

Wife Of Jailed Belarusian Blogger Speaks Out In Video Statement
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The letter was signed by Representatives Marcy Kaptur (Democrat-Ohio), Bill Keating (Democrat-Massachusetts), David Cicilline (Democrat-Rhode Island), Tom Malinowski (Democrat-New Jersey), James McGovern (Democrat-Massachusetts), Brian Fitzpatrick (Republican-Pennsylvania), and Chris Smith (Republican-New Jersey).

Lukashenka, who has ruled the country since 1994, has directed a brutal postelection crackdown in which almost 30,000 people have been detained, hundreds beaten, several killed, and the media targeted.

Losik is among nearly 300 political prisoners caught up in the crackdown.

In response to the suppression of protesters, the West has slapped sanctions on top officials and refuses to recognize Lukashenka as the legitimate leader of the former Soviet republic.

The 28-year-old Losik has been in pretrial detention since June 2020 on charges widely considered trumped up.

He was initially charged with allegedly using his popular Telegram channel to "prepare to disrupt public order" ahead of a presidential election last August.

Earlier this month, he tried to slit his wrists and launched a four-day hunger strike after being informed of new, unspecified charges. He had previously launched a six-week hunger strike to protest the original charges.

On March 22, 11 days after he was informed of the new charges, a court extended Losik's pretrial detention to May 25.

RFE/RL President Jamie Fly condemned the move and the new charges, saying the father of a 2-year-old daughter should be released immediately so he can be reunited with his family.

“Journalism is not a crime and Ihar has been unjustly detained for far too long. Ihar and his family should not be tortured in this way,” Fly wrote, adding that RFE/RL was "deeply distressed" by the new charges and Losik's deteriorating health situation.

The oversight agency for RFE/RL and other U.S. international broadcasters has also condemned the Belarusian authorities' decision to heap further charges on Losik and has demanded his release.

The U.S. State Department and other members of Congress have previously condemned the wrongful detention of Losik and other political prisoners.

Vladislav Yesypenko, a freelance contributor to RFE/RL, was detained by FSB officers in Crimea on March 16.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) says it fears that a detained Crimean journalist’s televised “confession” to spying on behalf of Ukraine was obtained under torture and has called for his immediate release and the withdrawal of the charges against him.

In a statement on March 26, Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk, expressed concern about “the psychological and physical pressure” Vladislav Yesypenko has been subjected to.

Cavelier also condemned the ban on access to his lawyer.

Yesypenko, a freelance contributor to Crimea.Realities, a regional news outlet of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, was “visibly pale and had difficulty talking when he made his confession -- one almost certainly obtained under duress -- in an interview for local Russian TV channel Krym24 that seemed more like a police interrogation,” the Paris-based media freedom watchdog said.

The interview was broadcast on March 18, eight days after Yesypenko, who has Ukrainian and Russian dual nationality, was arrested in Ukraine’s Russia-annexed Crimea region.

Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) said Yesypenko was suspected of collecting information for Ukrainian intelligence and claimed that an object "looking like an explosive device" was found in his automobile during his apprehension.

The journalist was charged with “making firearms,” which is punishable by up to six years in prison.

RFE/RL President Jamie Fly has called for Yesypenko’s immediate release and also has questioned the circumstances under which Yesypenko made his confession.

"We question the circumstances surrounding this purported confession, which appears to be forced and made without access to legal counsel," Fly said in a statement.

"The Russian authorities have similarly smeared RFE/RL Ukrainian Service contributors with false charges in the past. Vladislav is a freelance contributor with RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, not a spy, and he should be released."

Ukraine's Foreign Intelligence Service described the arrest as “a convenient attempt to distract the attention of the population away from the numerous internal problems of the peninsula" ahead of the seventh anniversary of its forcible annexation, which was marked on March 18.

The U.S. State Department called Yesypenko's arrest “another attempt to repress those who speak the truth about Russia's aggression in Ukraine.”

Graty, a Ukrainian media outlet specializing in police and judicial abuses, quoted a source at Yesypenko’s place of detention as saying he had been tortured, while the lawyer chosen by the journalist’s family has not been allowed to see him, according to the Crimean Human Rights Group (CHRG).

This suggests that the authorities are trying to cover up evidence that Yesypenko has been “subjected to illegal methods of investigation, including physical and psychological violence,” the CHRG said.

Yesypenko was detained along with a resident of the Crimean city of Alushta, Yelizaveta Pavlenko, after the two took part in an event marking the 207th anniversary of the birth of Ukrainian poet and thinker Taras Shevchenko the day before in Crimea.

Pavlenko was later released.

Russia forcibly annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in March 2014, sending in troops and staging a referendum denounced as illegitimate by at least 100 countries after Moscow-friendly Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted amid a wave of public protests.

Rights groups say that since then, Russia has moved aggressively to prosecute Ukrainian activists and anyone who questions the annexation.

Moscow also backs separatists in a war against Ukrainian government forces that has killed more than 13,000 people in eastern Ukraine since April 2014.

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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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