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Belarus11 March 2005

Journalists gets 10 days in prison for being at unauthorized demonstration

Reporters Without Borders protested today against the 10-day prison sentence passed by a court in the city of Grodno (near the Polish border) on 4 March on journalist Andrei Pochobut for "participating in an unauthorized demonstration" by small business owners which he in fact was covering for the Pahonia online news site ( Pochobut also writes for Den, an independent weekly.

"We are outraged by this sentence, especially as Pochobut produced evidence proving that he was working as a journalist when he was arrested, and because it violates articles 39 (on the right to cover public meetings as a journalist) and article 48 (on the freedom to inform the public) of Belarus’ press law," the press freedom organization said.

"In a country in which the authorities constantly harass the independent media, this sentence testifies to a continuing deterioration in respect for press freedom," the organization added.

Around 1,000 small business owners took part in the demonstration on 3 March in Grodno’s Lenin Square to protest against a rise in VAT and to demand a meeting with the region’s governor.

After the demonstration, Vladimir Sachevsky, the head of the internal affairs department for the Leninski district of Grodno, asked Pochobut to make a state about a car accident he had witnessed. But Pochobut was instead arrested on a charge of participating in an unauthorized demonstration and was placed in custody in the Leninski police. Sachevsky at the same time told him he "created tension" because of his journalistic work.

During the trial the next day in the Leninski court, police officers Piotr Lienec and Andrei Hatau, who had been at the demonstration, said Pochobut had indeed been covering it and that he had taken photos of the demonstrators. But judge Natalia Koziel, after looking a footage of the demonstration, said Pochobut should have covered it from "outside of the crowd."

The press was not allowed to attend the trial, but some journalists were able to enter the courtroom when Pochobut’s lawyer, Aliksander Birylau, delivered his summation. Immediately after Pochobut was found guilty under article 167-1 of the administrative code, he was transferred to the Leninski district prison.

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