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Belarus Claims It Freed Detained Journalists, But Some Still In Custody


Maryna Zolatava after her release from detention.

Belarusian state investigators claimed late on August 9 that they had released all journalists detained this week on suspicion of hacking the computer systems of state-run news agency BelTA, but some independent journalists remained in custody.

Among those released were three employees of the private online news portal Tut.by: editors Maryna Zolatava and Hanna Kaltyhina, and reporter Hanna Yermachonak.

Zolatava told RFE/RL that she had been treated well in custody but she now has been charged with official negligence in connection with the case, which could bring five years of imprisonment.

The Belarusian Investigative Committee claimed that Zolatava admitted that her staff was "using, for a long time and with her knowledge," information enabling them to hack into BeITA's paid subscription service, the Russian news agency Interfax reported.

But the committee said that, because of "her active cooperation with the investigation," she was released from custody.

The founder of Tut.by, Yury Zisser, wrote on Facebook that all employees of the portal were released, but he added that the detentions were "only a prelude" as the committee is continuing its investigation and plans to take some journalists "to trial."

Rights groups have charged that the government is trying to muzzle independent media that are critical of strongman President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and his government.

The Belarusian Foreign Ministry has denied that allegation.

Investigators had searched the newsrooms of Tut.by and independent news agency BelaPAN as part of their probe.

Two other journalists released late on August 9 were Alyaksey Zhukau, editor of the Belarusians And The Market website, and BelaPAN reporter Tatsyana Karavyankova.

But two prominent journalists remained in custody, RFE/RL reported.

The wife of detained Deutsche Welle reporter Paulyuk Bykouski, Volha Bykouskaya, wrote on her Facebook page that her husband remains in custody and will be interrogated on August 10.

She said he was detained after the committee confiscated all his computers and credit cards.

Also, the fate of detained BelaPAN editor Iryna Leushyna remained unknown. She was reportedly detained on August 9.

Deutsche Welle said it had lodged a protest with the Belarusian ambassador in Berlin, Dzyanis Sidarenka, and demanded Bykouski's immediate release on August 8, the day he was taken into custody. The broadcaster stressed that the rule of law must apply to accredited journalists.

The U.S. Helsinki Commission Chair Senator Roger Wicker, in an August 9 statement, condemned the journalists' detention.

"Lukashenka's deliberate targeting of independent news outlets is an affront to the rights of the whole population," Wicker said, calling on Belarusian authorities to "cease harassing those who dedicate their lives to uncovering and sharing the truth."

"This is an attempt to intimidate us all," Belarusian Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich told RFE/RL. "There is a test: whether we exist as a society that is capable of offering civil resistance."

The Council of Europe human rights body on August 7 expressed "great concern" over the newsroom raids and detentions, while Reporters Without Borders (RSF) urged Belarusian authorities to stop the "harassment of critical journalists."

With reporting by Reuters and Interfax
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