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Belarus Opens Trial of Journalist for Prominent Polish Paper

Journalist Andrzej Poczobut, center, stands in a defendants' cage during a court session in Grodno, Belarus, Jan. 16, 2023.
Journalist Andrzej Poczobut, center, stands in a defendants' cage during a court session in Grodno, Belarus, Jan. 16, 2023.

Belarus has opened the trial of a journalist and prominent member of the country's sizable Polish minority, the latest in a series of court cases against critics of the authoritarian regime of President Alexander Lukashenko.

Andrzej Poczobut, 49, faces up to 12 years in prison if convicted of the charges of harming national security and inciting discord. Poczobut, a journalist for the influential Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza and a top figure in the Union of Poles in Belarus, has been behind bars since his detention in March 2021.

He widely covered major protests that gripped Belarus for weeks in 2020 following a presidential election that gave Lukashenko, in power since 1994, a new term in office, but that was widely regarded by the opposition and Western countries as fraudulent.

The trial in the western city of Grodno was closed to independent journalists and Western diplomats on Monday, but photos from the courtroom suggested that Poczobut has lost significant weight while in custody.

In Poland a spokesman for the government, Piotr Mueller, said that despite "numerous diplomatic efforts, unfortunately, we have no additional tools that could help in this area" of political freedom in Belarus. He said it was a "scandalous situation."

Mueller told a news conference in Warsaw that Poland will continue diplomatic efforts to change the situation.

"But we know very well that at this point authorities in Belarus are directly linked to Russia and that they are pursuing a defined policy that counters not only Poland but the entire democratic area that holds human rights as top state priorities," Mueller said.

Poland's Foreign Ministry said it met the information about Poczobut's trial with "disappointment" and said the charges are "untrue and politically motivated."

The ministry appealed for Poczobut's release and said his imprisonment constituted "another example of the instrumental use of the justice system against any and all democratic standards and an element in the anti-Polish campaign pursued by the authorities of Belarus."

In the eastern Polish city of Bialystok, some 50 kilometers (31 miles) from the border with Belarus, a group of protesters representing Belarusian diaspora and human rights organizations gathered before the Belarusian consulate to demand freedom for Poczobut and other political prisoners.

The 2020 protests in Belarus were the largest and most sustained in the country.

Authorities responded to the demonstrations with a crackdown that saw more than 35,000 people arrested, thousands beaten by police and dozens of media outlets and nongovernmental organizations shut.

This month, Belarus put human rights activist Ales Bialiatski, a co-winner of the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize, on trial for financing protests. Another trial against two top figures of the now-banned independent news portal TUT.BY began last week.

About 300,000 of Belarus' 10 million people are ethnic Poles. The Union of Poles came under government pressure after authorities accused Poland of trying to foment an uprising against Lukashenko.