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Journalists charged, police raids continue in post-election crackdown

Irina Bogdanova, sister of imprisoned opposition candidate Andrei Sannikov, protests against the Belarusian elections in front of the London embassy on 21 December
Irina Bogdanova, sister of imprisoned opposition candidate Andrei Sannikov, protests against the Belarusian elections in front of the London embassy on 21 December

Guy Corbishley/Grey Photography

Dozens of journalists arrested in a police crackdown on demonstrations that followed the re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko last month remain in jail, some of whom could face 15 years in jail for organising public disorder, report IFEX members and the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ). Since the election, security forces have also raided the homes and offices of critical Belarusian journalists and confiscated equipment.

According to BAJ, an affiliate of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), 24 journalists were arrested in the crackdown, and 21 were physically assaulted. A number were sentenced to up to two weeks' detention and others remained "under investigation".

Irina Khalip, correspondent for the Moscow newspaper "Novaya Gazeta" and winner of last year's Central European Initiative (CEI) and the South East Europe Media Organisation (CEI SEEMO) Investigative Journalism Award, and Natalya Radina, editor of the pro-opposition news website Charter 97, have been charged with organising and participating in mass disorder, reports the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). They have been held at a KGB detention centre since 20 December and face up to 15 years in jail if convicted.

Radina suffered head and ear injuries when police violently dispersed a post-election demonstration that she was covering, but she has not received medical attention in custody, says CPJ. BAJ confirmed that Belarusian authorities are trying to place Khalip's three-year-old son in a foster home against the wishes of his grandparents.

Khalip's husband, opposition presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov, is also being held by the KGB, reports CPJ. Sannikov was tortured while in custody - his legs appear to be broken, and his speech and behaviour indicate head injuries, his lawyer told Amnesty International.

Meanwhile, KGB agents continued to raid the homes and offices of independent and pro-opposition journalists and seized equipment, apparently searching for photographs and video footage of the election protests.

On 28 December security agents raided the offices shared by "Nasha Niva" and the Belarusian PEN Center on suspicion of organising public disorder and desecrating national symbols, says BAJ. KGB agents confiscated a dozen computers and numerous digital storage devices. On the same day, security agents searched the home of "Nasha Niva" editor-in-chief Andrei Skurko, forced Skurko to sign a gag order and took his computer, says CPJ.

Similarly, government agents confiscated computers and other equipment on a 25 December raid at the Minsk offices of European Radio for Belarus (Evroradio), reports CPJ, halting news broadcasts from Minsk. Evroradio continued broadcasting from its headquarters in Warsaw. Local press reports said the raid might have been in retaliation for Evroradio interviews with Russian political analysts who were sharply critical of Lukashenko.

Agents also raided the premises of Belsat but weren't able to seize property; apparently apprehensive journalists had dismantled station equipment and taken it home for the holiday, says CPJ.

Several journalists working for these independent media outlets continue to have their homes searched and equipment confiscated, report BAJ, CPJ and Index on Censorship.

In a rare joint statement issued on 23 December, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton condemned the post-election violence and called for the immediate release of more than 600 political detainees rounded up after the election. "Respect for democracy and human rights remain central to improving Belarus's relations with the United States and the European Union. Without substantial progress in these areas, relations will not improve," said the statement.

Freedom House is calling on the EU to renew full sanctions against Belarus if Lukashenko fails to take restorative action. "The current situation is much worse than that in 2006, when the EU and U.S. together imposed sanctions against the regime."

According to CPJ, the Central Election Commission reported that Lukashenko won a fourth term in office with just under 80 percent of the vote. Observers with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) criticised the lack of transparency in the vote count and the suppression of the news media.

A defiant Lukashenko told a news conference on 20 December that post-election detainees were "pogromists and bandits." In an explicit threat against the press, he pledged to make journalists "answer for every word they write," reports CPJ.

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