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Independent Belarusian Newspaper Threatened With Closure

A Minsk court this week began hearing a defamation case that could result in the closure of one of the last independent newspapers in Belarus.

Christina Gallach, spokeswoman for EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana, told the Belapan news agency on December 5, the day the hearings began, that the bloc is concerned about the case.

"We have been following this issue very closely, and with increasing concern," Gallach said. "The importance of the freedom of the media is one of the key issues the European Union has repeatedly raised with the Belarusian authorities."

In the case, parliamentarian Mikalay Charhinets, a close associate of and possible successor to President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, is seeking an unprecedented 500 million Belarusian rubles ($230,000) from the newspaper "Novy chas" and another 100 million from the author of a purportedly libelous article published in September.

Charhinets, a former senior Interior Ministry official who claims to be the author of dozens of literary works, is also the head of Belarus's official writers union. "Novy chas" publishes a monthly supplement organized by an independent writers union that was closed down by the authorities last year.

"I think that this blow has been dealt not to me but to the 'Novy chas' newspaper, which currently publishes writers who do not belong to the so-called correct union of writers," journalist Alyaksandr Tamkovich, the author of the disputed article, told RFE/RL's Belarus Service.

In a November 26 press release, "Novy chas" Editor in Chief Alyaksey Karol said the amount of damages sought is more than 20 times the amount sought against the independent "Narodnaya volya," which has been the target of similar complaints three times in recent years.

The article at the heart of the case questions Charhinets's authorship of the plays and novels published under his name and tries to connect him with the so-called Vitebsk case from the 1980s. In that case, several innocent people were convicted, under heavy pressure from Soviet authorities, in connection with a spate of killings. The article also accuses him of exaggerating his service in Afghanistan during the Soviet war there.

Charhinets also made headlines in June 2003 at the funeral of renowned patriotic writer Vasil Bykau. Charhinets attempted to remove the nationalist red-white-red flag, a historic Belarusian symbol that has been banned by Lukashenka, from the coffin during the service.

"Novy chas" began publication in March after its predecessor, "Zgoda," was closed down by the authorities last year in connection with the country's presidential election. The amount of damages being sought in the Chahinets case equals several times the paper's annual budget.

(For more on Belarus, see 19-Year-Old Activist Fights For God And Country)

RFE/RL Belarus, Ukraine, And Moldova Report

RFE/RL Belarus, Ukraine, And Moldova Report

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