Belarus: Renewed call for prisoners’ release as new trial gets underway

Belarus: Renewed call for prisoners’ release as new trial gets underway - Media

from the left: Irina Levshina, Dmitry Novozhilov, Andrei Alexandrov, Irina Zlobina / photo credit: BAJ

Ahead of the upcoming ‘BelaPAN’ trial of four journalists and activists, including our former colleague Andrei Aliaksandrau, ARTICLE 19 Europe calls for their unconditional release and for the bogus charges against them to be dropped. The regime must cease its systematic oppression of civil society and free all political prisoners currently illegally jailed for simply exercising their fundamental rights.

On 6 June 2022, the regional court in Minsk is set to hear the cases against journalist and human rights defender Andrei Aliaksandrau, activist Irina Zlobina, the editor-in chief of BelaPAN Irina Levshina and her predecessor Dmitry Novozhilov. The trial will take place behind closed doors. BelaPAN is one of Belarus’ leading independent news organisations. In August 2021, the police raided its offices as well as the houses of several employees, including Levishna’s, part of a new wave of repression launched by the security forces against media and activists. In November 2021, the KGB declared BelaPAN an extremist organisation. 

Andrei Aliaksandrau, who previously worked at ARTICLE 19 and Index on Censorship, and is a former BelaPAN editor-in-chief, has been detained since 12 January 2021. Andrei was arrested alongside his partner Irina Zlobina on suspicion of ‘financing protest activities’ for allegedly paying fines and covering detention costs for those apprehended during one of the protests in Minsk. He is now facing charges of ‘treason to the state’. If convicted, Andrei will face up to 15 years in prison. Irina has been charged with ‘organisation and preparation of actions that grossly violate public order,’ which carries a sentence of up to three years’ imprisonment. To mark the grim one-year anniversary of their detention, in January, ARTICLE 19 Europe and Index On Censorship launched a campaign to show solidarity with Andrei and Irina and renew the call for their release.

Irina Levshina and Dmitry Novozhilov have been accused of tax evasion. In addition, Levshina faces charges of creating or participating in an extremist organisation. 

Crackdown on  journalists and activists continues

In the course of nearly two years since the rigged presidential election that sparked mass protests across Belarus, the regime has continued to quash dissent, harass journalists and activists, as well as banning and blocking hundreds of news websites and media outlets. The Supreme Court has ruled to dissolve dozens of rights groups including the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) and PEN Belarus, the country’s most prominent champions of free expression and media freedom. Those people who continue their association with liquidated non-governmental organisations face steep fines and imprisonment. 

The regime also diverted a commercial plane to facilitate the arrest of blogger Roman Protasevich and his partner, student Sofia Sapega, in May 2021. Sapega was recently convicted to six years in prison. 

In light of the ongoing invasion of Ukraine, the regime has stepped up its crackdown with even more intensity. On 18 May 2022, Belarusian authorities introduced the death penalty for ‘attempts to carry out acts of terrorism’. ARTICLE 19 Europe finds the new law deeply distressing given the fact that the terrorism-related charges are regularly used to prosecute political dissidents. According to the human rights centre Viasna, as of May 2022, there are 1217 political prisoners in Belarus. Several members of the organisation also remain in prolonged detention. 

The Belarusian regime continues to flagrantly violate human rights law and defy its obligations under international conventions. Journalists, activists and ordinary citizens are handed down draconic sentences after grossly unfair trials. We urge the international community to take more decisive actions to stop repression and support a democratic transition in Belarus. Andrei Aliaksandrau, Irina Zlobina, Irina Levshina, Dmitry Novozhilov and all political prisoners must be released.