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Belarus: ORT Journalists Trial Outcome Leaves Questions

Moscow 29 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A Belarus court decision yesterday that gave suspended jail sentences to two Belarus journalists working for Russia's Public Television (ORT) hardly came as a surprise to observers of the uneasy relations between Moscow and Minsk.

The Belarus state prosecutor in the case had requested suspended sentences for the ORT bureau chief in Minsk, Pavel Sheremet, and cameramen Dmitry Zavadsky, in advance of a meeting between Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

The court, in the Belarusian town of Oshmyany, at the border with Lithuania, issued a two-year suspended sentence for Sheremet and 18 months for Zavadsky. It convicted the two journalists of crossing the Belarus-Lithuanian border illegally last summer. They had been preparing a report on smuggling.

A smiling Yeltsin declared after last week's meeting that he and Lukashenka had solved the dispute between us and removed what he called a shadow connected with journalists.

Those words prompted observers and Sheremet himself to say that a face-saving compromise would follow to end the embarrassing trial. Sheremet, who is a founder of a human rights group, Charter 97, predicted that he would receive a suspended sentence.

Sheremet and Zavadsky originally faced three-year sentences. Sheremet spent three months in prison after the arrest and was released only following pressure from Russia. Observers said at the time that the stubbornness of the authoritarian Belarusian president over the case was a major international embarrassment for Moscow.

The Kremlin may be satisfied with the suspended sentence, but Sheremet and civil rights activists are not. Sheremet's lawyers and Russian observers said the verdict followed a trial that failed to prove that the journalists violated Belarusian legislation.

Sheremet put his view this way: "Formally, I am a free man but I am still in handcuffs." He said he can't work as a journalist because he is refused press accreditation.

In Moscow, ORT General Director Ksenya Ponomaryova called the verdict political and said the company will pursue appeals. She said that the sentence warns journalists to be quiet and tractable.