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Convicted Journalist: 'You Don't Get A Fair Chance' In Belarus

Dzmitry Halko sits in his cage in a Minsk court on July 17, 2018.
Dzmitry Halko sits in his cage in a Minsk court on July 17, 2018.

KYIV -- When it comes to the court system in Belarus, "you don't get a fair chance," says journalist Dzmitry Halko.

The Belarusian got an inside look over the past few weeks, during which he was arrested, put on trial, convicted of assaulting a police officer, and then sentenced by a Minsk court on July 17 to four years of "limitation of freedom."

"Limitation of freedom," in Halko's case, means he will serve his four-year term in a guarded dormitory and work regular hours at a production facility chosen by the penitentiary authorities. In theory it is a step down from a regular prison, where prosecutors had asked for him to be put away for three years.

Halko believes his sentence may, in fact, be "worse."

"I will have to pay [to stay at the guarded dormitory]. I will have to work somewhere I don't want to. And pretty soon it can be turned into a real prison [sentence] because of some petty 'violations,'" Halko says in his first interview since his arrest.

'I Feel Trapped'

Halko, a journalist and fixer who has reported on the conflict in eastern Ukraine for Western, Ukrainian, and Belarusian media, spoke to RFE/RL over Facebook Messenger on July 19, using the computer of a friend with whom he is staying in Minsk while he appeals his sentence -- an effort he believes is important but futile.

The 38-year-old married father of three expects to remain free for at least several weeks, or even a couple of months, until a court decides on his appeal.

The chance of the court overturning the sentence is slim to none.

"I feel trapped," Halko says.

International rights groups have denounced the sentence and demanded that Belarus let Halko go free.

Halko hugs his mother at his court appearance in MInsk on July 17.
Halko hugs his mother at his court appearance in MInsk on July 17.

"We call on Belarusian authorities to immediately release independent journalist Dzmitry Halko," said the Committee to Protect Journalists' Europe and Central Asia research associate, Gulnoza Said. "Belarus has never been a safe place for independent reporting, but jailing Halko is a new stain on official Minsk's reputation as one of the world's most repressive societies."

The calls have gone unanswered by Belarusian authorities.

RFE/RL was unable to reach the Interior Ministry for comment for this story.

'It's Not Easy To Hold Up'

Halko is barred from leaving Minsk and must make himself available to police at a moment's notice during the appeal process.

The prospect of doing four years of what is essentially forced labor and living in close quarters with convicts weighs heavily on his mind.

"It's not that easy to hold up. But I am a strong man," Halko says. "I've been through the war in Donbas, after all."

Halko says his health is fine and he was not physically harmed while in pretrial detention, despite the rough conditions. "Just intimidated to some extent," he adds.

Halko says police officers called him names, like "banderovets," a term derived from the name of the late Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera that is often used to smear Ukrainians or Ukrainian supporters who criticize Russia, and "Navalny," referring to Aleksei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader and Kremlin critic.

'Pure Provocation'

About the incident that landed him in trouble, Halko says it was a "pure provocation" on the part of police.

The authorities' story is this: After responding to a noise complaint by neighbors about Halko's apartment, where he was hosting a birthday party for his teenage son, the journalist assaulted two police officers, grabbing one by the arm.

Halko tells it like this: "There was absolutely no clear and rightful reason for the police to invade the apartment. And I never tried to attack them or be rude at my doorway. Quite the contrary, I opened the door, talked to them politely, promised to show my papers. And just after I turned away to go for the papers inside, they ran into the apartment, pushing me."

"Then they started to talk about 'drug stash or porn studio,' something like this," Halko says. "I said c'mon, really? Let's have a look then, if it's all about this kind of stuff."

And at some point after inviting the police officers inside his apartment, one of the officers began to videotape the teenage partygoers, which angered Halko.

Halko reporting from eastern Ukraine in 2014.
Halko reporting from eastern Ukraine in 2014.

He says he told the officers that to "videotape the minors you have to get [permission from] their parents first."

"I began trying to stop him from filming," he explains, saying that the officer "covered the camera with my hand."

That's when the officer started to yell: "There's an attack here!" according to Halko.

"Two additional officers rushed inside, then another two, then...gosh...SWAT," Halko says, using the American term for a heavily armed special elite unit. In Belarus, the unit is called OMAN.

The teenagers at the party backed Halko's story, The Kyiv Post newspaper reported.

Shrug. 'It's Belarus.'

At the trial, the police officers who arrested Halko were not called to testify. But the prosecutor gave statements from them about what occurred at the apartment that contradicted each other, Konstantin Charukhin, a friend of Halko's who attended his trial, told RFE/RL.

Halko says his lawyer had "tried her hardest to help me...But the system is soooooo corrupted."

"It's Belarus, after all," he says.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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