Up to 100 people, including a number of journalists, were arrested during demonstrations in Belarus on March 25, 2008, and 26 have since been sentenced to prison terms of 5 to 15 days. Many more suffered beatings by police. International PEN has long been concerned by the repression of free expression and the harassment and arrests of Belarus journalists. PEN calls on the Belarus authorities to end attacks on the media and to release all those detained solely for the nonviolent practice of their right to freedom of expression.

Background Information

On March 25, 2008, thousands gathered in Minsk and elsewhere in Belarus to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the 1918 founding of the short-lived Belarus National Republic. Trials against more than 70 people opened just a day later, and 26 people were summarily sentenced to between 5 and 15 days in prison; another 50 were fined. All were accused of staging illegal demonstrations.

Sjamen Pechanko of the newspaper Nasha Niva is one of the journalists in detention. He was sentenced to 15 days’ imprisonment, and will be held until April 9. According to European Radio Belarus, he is accused of shouting out phrases such as “shame!” and "long live Belarus,” and waving the now-illegal red and white flag of Belarus. Pechanko, 27, was awarded the independent Belarus Association of Journalists' 2007 Free Word Award for his fictional piece Savage and Julia. He is also the author of In the Belarus Army.

Artist Alexsei Maraczkin was taken from his studio and arrested a day before the demonstration and sentenced to five days in prison. As the head of the Union of Belarusians Abroad and key member of the Belarus Popular Front Party, his arrest appears to be aimed at preventing him from participating in the following day’s event.

Photographs of Andrei Lankievicz, a Nasha Niva photographer, show him bleeding profusely from the head as he was led away by police. Lanckievicz has not been sentenced.

On March 27, police staged a nationwide search of the homes and offices of independent journalists. According to the Belarus Media Association, police action is being carried out under Article 367 of the Belarus Penal Code, which penalizes “libel” against the Belarus president. There are fears that this may lead to further arrests. The Belarus state prosecutor’s office told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) that the searches were in relation to a 2005 case against three people who had posted cartoons ridiculing the president online. The three are said to have fled Belarus in 2007 and police are looking for their  “collaborators.” The Belarus Foreign Ministry has also told RFE/RL that searches against EU- and Polish-funded independent newspapers were being carried out as they had no accreditation and “had illegally engaged in journalistic activities for foreign money on the territory of the Republic of Belarus."

A number of journalists from outside Belarus, mainly Lithuania, Poland, and Ukraine, were among those attacked on March 25. Two Lithuanian TV journalists were beaten badly as they attempted to film the events. The Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned the events as “a gross violation of the principle of free expression.” The U.S. embassy has withdrawn staff in protest. The EU, which has been working on improving relations with Belarus, not least because gas lines from Russia to the EU run through the country, expressed “deep disappointment” on March 28 about the violence used against demonstrators and the arrests.

Write A Letter

  • protesting the sentences and beatings of journalists after the March 25 demonstrations;

  • pointing out that such actions are in direct violation of Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees the right to freedom of expression, and Article 21, which protects the right to peaceful assembly;

  • calling for the release of all writers and journalists held in violation of their rights and an end to further harassment and attacks on the independent media.

Send Your Letter To

President of the Republic of Belarus
Alyaksandr G. Lukashenka
Karl Marx Str. 38
220016 g. Minsk
Belarus
Fax: 00 375 (172) 26 06 10
E-mail: pres@president.gov.by

Please send a copy of your appeals to the Belarusian embassy in your own country.

Please check with PEN if sending appeals after April 10, 2008: ftw@pen.org