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Environmental campaigner Shpresa Loshaj

Amnesty International is urging a company operating hydropower plants in a protected natural area in western Kosovo to withdraw “baseless” defamation lawsuits against two local environmental activists.

“Shpresa Loshaj and Adriatik Gacaferi have campaigned tirelessly to raise concerns about the environmental impact of hydropower plants in the protected Decan region,” Jelena Sesar, Western Balkans researcher at the London-based human rights watchdog, said in a statement on June 28.

“These activists are bravely standing up for their communities and their environment, and Kelkos Energy’s lawsuits appear to be a cynical attempt to silence them.”

Kelkos Energy is a subsidiary of the Austria-based public energy provider Kelag International.

Loshaj and Gacaferi have used social media and television appearances to raise concerns about the environmental impact of the company’s hydropower plants, according to Amnesty International. The activists also questioned the legality of the operating licenses that were issued by the Kosovar authorities to Kelkos Energy and other companies.

Last year, Kelkos Energy filed a defamation lawsuit against Loshaj and asked for 100,000 euros ($119,331) for “reputational damages” caused by her public campaigning against the company’s operations in the Decan region, Amnesty International said. The company also demanded that the activist publicly retract and apologize for her statement and refrain from stating “untrue facts” about the company in the future.

In a similar lawsuit, Kelkos Energy demanded 10,000 euros in reputational damages from Gacaferi over a Facebook post that criticized the company’s hydropower plant operations. Kelkos Energy demanded that the activist remove the contested post and publish a retraction.

Kelkos Energy told Amnesty International that the lawsuits are means to protect the company against “factual statements that are demonstrably wrong.” It said it operates within the law and disputed claims that its hydropower plants have caused environmental degradation.

Both cases are pending in Kosovo's courts.

Sesar said that Kelkos Energy should withdraw the lawsuits, while Kosovar authorities must “ensure that environmental defenders can express their concerns without fear of reprisal.”

“These lawsuits illustrate the growing trend of powerful corporations and public officials misusing the justice system to intimidate human rights defenders, and shield themselves from public scrutiny,” Sesar said.

Independent news site Tut.by and online resources related to it comprise the largest Internet holding in Belarus. (file photo)

MINSK -- Tut.by, a leading independent news site in Belarus, says it has removed its social media archive for the last 18 months to shield its staff and readers from persecution amid an ongoing crackdown on the country's pro-democracy movement.

The site's editors explained the move on June 28 as an effort to avoid possible criminal probes against employees and readers after an investigation was launched against the news site for allegedly fomenting "extremism."

They added that the archives were not deleted, just temporarily "hidden," with its Telegram channel being operated by administrators located outside the country.

Tut.by also said that it had removed the log-in verification option from its Telegram channel in order to allow it to rename the channel as soon as possible in case the news site is officially labeled as "extremist" by Belarusian authorities.

Last month, 15 journalists working for Tut.by were detained, the news site was blocked, and the company's bank accounts were frozen after a criminal case on tax evasion charges was launched against the news site's editors.

In mid-June, the Interior Ministry officially requested that a Minsk court recognize the news site and its accounts on social networks as "extremist."

A decision on the issue was expected on June 24, but the hearing was postponed to a later, unspecified date.

Tut.by and online resources related to it comprise the largest Internet holding in Belarus. In December, Belarusian authorities deprived Tut.by of its media license, citing warnings the website had received for extended coverage of the crackdown on protests that erupted after a disputed presidential election last August.

Electoral officials say the country's authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka, in power since 1994, won the vote, but opposition figures say the election was rigged and that their candidate, Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, was the victor.

Security officials have cracked down hard on the demonstrators, arresting thousands and pushing most leading opposition figures out of the country.

Several protesters have been killed in the violence and rights organizations say there is credible evidence of torture being used against some of those detained.

Lukashenka denies voter fraud and has refused to negotiate with the opposition.

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

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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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