Every day, Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza publishes a photo of its correspondent in Belarus, Andrzej Poczobut, along with a number. On May 3, that number was 769, corresponding to the days that the reporter has been imprisoned. Poczobut is all too familiar with the repression of Aleksander Lukashenko’s regime, which had already arrested him over a dozen times. On this occasion, however, his sentence was harsher — an eight-year prison term. To mark Press Freedom Day, which also falls on May 3, Gazeta Wyborcza has called on the Belarusian authorities to release Poczobut immediately.
A judge in the Belarusian city of Grodno handed down the sentence on February, assigning Poczobut to a maximum-security prison for inciting hatred and “calling for sanctions,” against the regime, according to a report by the New York-based NGO Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). As of October 2022, he has also been included on a list of people suspected of “terrorist actions” by the Belarusian KGB.
As reported by the CPJ, the charges against Poczobut date back to his coverage of the protests that the government violently suppressed following the fraudulent elections of August 2020. The journalist, who has been detained since March 25, 2021, recently turned 50 and is a well-known leader of the Union of Poles in Belarus, an organization representing the ethnic Polish minority in the country, which according to the 2019 census numbers some 300,000 people. During his trial, statements in which defended the Polish community in Belarus and described the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939 as aggression were presented to the court.
Bartosz T. Wielinski, deputy director of Gazeta Wyborcza, describes Poczobut as a “hero” and an “inspiration” to his colleagues. “He is independent, loyal to the truth, isn’t afraid to speak his mind and extremely courageous,” he tells EL PAÍS, while demanding “his immediate, unconditional release.”
Belarusian authorities had tried to convince Poczobut — who is married with two children and a holds dual Polish-Belarusian nationality — to leave the country, a standard practice within the Minsk regime. They also offered to send a petition for clemency to Lukashenko. He refused both proposals. “He is very defiant and is not going to ask this dictator for anything,” says Wielinski.
The trial against the journalist — who in addition to writing for Gazeta Wyborcza, a partner of EL PAÍS in the Alliance of Leading European Newspapers (LENA), has contributed to other Belarusian and Polish media outlets — was staged behind closed doors on January 16. He appeared briefly in the courtroom, in the defendant’s glass box, looking gaunt and with scars on his face. This caused great concern among his colleagues regarding his health and the treatment he is receiving in a prison system they compare to the Soviet gulags. However, his character and defiance toward the authorities appeared to remain intact, his colleagues also noted.
“Anti-Polish campaign conducted by the Belarusian authorities”
The Polish government has demanded Poczobut’s release on numerous occasions and consider his arrest and conviction as being “an element of the anti-Polish campaign conducted by the Belarusian authorities.” The relationship between the two countries is at its lowest point in history. In 2021, Poland, along with other countries bordering Belarus that host hundreds of dissidents and opponents of the regime, denounced a campaign orchestrated by Lukashenko to send thousands of migrants and asylum seekers to the borders of the European Union.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine, in which Belarus has placed itself at the Kremlin’s disposal, has further strained relations between Warsaw and Minsk. The day after Poczobut’s sentence became known, Poland ordered the closure of the Bobrowniki border crossing and announced that it would expand the list of those sanctioned for targeting the ethnic Polish population in Belarus.
According to the latest figures from the European Federation of Journalists, there are more reporters behind bars in Belarus than in any other European country and more than in Russia. Globally, the country ranked fifth in terms of the number of jailed journalists in 2022. There are currently estimated to be 32 reporters in prison in Belarus, a small fraction of the regime’s 1,500 political prisoners.
Poczobut has been on the radar of the Belarusian authorities for more than a decade. In 2011, he was sentenced to a fine and 15 days in jail for “participation in an unauthorized demonstration” following the 2010 elections. In 2011 and 2012 he was also arrested, accused of defaming Lukashenko in his reporting. “He is a citizen of a country that has been living under a dictatorship for 30 years, and he is an independent journalist who dared to fight for his rights,” says Wielinski.
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