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Polish Journalist Convicted of Libeling Belarus' Lukashenko

Andrzej Poczobut, a correspondent for one of Poland's major newspapers, Gazeta Wyborcza, with his wife Oksana in front of the court building where he was on trial in the town of Grodno, Belarus, July 5, 2011

A Polish journalist has been convicted of libel for insulting Belarus' authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko and given a three-year suspended jail sentence.

A Belarus judge in Grodno freed Andrzej Poczobut on Tuesday, but said his sentence would be reviewed in two years. Belarus laws do not prohibit criticism of the government, but Poczobut was arrested in April on charges that he libeled Lukashenko in his articles for the daily Gazeta Wyborcza and on an opposition Internet web site.

Poczobut's trial was closed to his wife and supporters, but he said the court told him the libel was that he had called Lukashenko a dictator. Poczobut said his articles only contained criticism of Mr. Lukashenko's 17-year regime, not insults.

Poczobut's trial came at a time of growing protest against the Belarusian leader, the deteriorating state of the country's economy and his crackdown on opponents that began after his disputed re-election last December.

Security forces in the one-time Soviet state arrested nearly 400 people on Sunday at a speech by Lukashenko on the country's Independence Day marking its 1944 liberation from Nazi occupation.

Plain-clothes security officers drifted through the crowd in Minsk that turned out to hear Lukashenko speak and arrested people they said were disrupting his speech by clapping their hands, but otherwise remaining silent. At least 20 people involved in the protest have been handed jail sentences of up to 15 days.

Some information for this report was provided by AP and AFP.