A journalist and a doctor went on trial in Minsk on Friday, charged with divulging the medical records of an activist beaten to death during anti-government protests, amid what rights groups say is a surging wave of repression in Belarus.
Katerina Borisevich, a reporter for independent news site Tut.by, and doctor Artyom Sorokin, have been charged with “disclosing medical records with grave consequences” over a report that contradicted the official government account of the death of anti-government protester Roman Bondarenko in November.
Critics say the prosecution is groundless, and reflects the new heights of strongman Alexander Lukashenko’s crackdown on civil society amid ongoing protests over last year’s presidential election, which the opposition and the EU say was stolen.
Opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who fled the country in the wake of the August election, warned Friday that her country was “facing an unprecedented level of repressions … lawlessness, human rights violations” amid the current crackdown.
“It's time to put more pressure on [Lukashenko]'s regime,” she tweeted.
At the heart of the latest trial is the death of Bondarenko, a protester who was beaten by men believed to be plainclothes police officers in a courtyard in Minsk, in a scuffle over attempts to remove ribbons displaying support for anti-government protests. The 31-year-old artist and military veteran was driven away in a van, and died the following day in hospital.
Amid public fury over the death, which inspired further protests against the Lukashenko regime, investigators said that Bondarenko had been drunk.
Borisevich wrote an article denying those claims, citing medical reports that showed Bondarenko had no alcohol in his blood. In response, she and Sorokin were arrested and charged, with prosecutors alleging the journalist convinced the doctor to disclose Bondarenko’s medical information.
The pair, considered by Amnesty International to be prisoners of conscience, have been in jail since November, and face up to three years in jail if found guilty.
Rights groups say the unjust charges against the pair highlights how the Lukashenko regime is criminalising the work of journalists, as it responds to the anti-government protest movement with an escalating crackdown.
“Belarusian authorities treat independent journalists and human rights defenders as their enemies,” Anastasiia Zlobina, coordinator of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia Division, told VICE World News.
She said the prosecution of independent journalists “in retaliation for their peaceful legitimate work” was a violation of international law, and just one of a spate of recent cases highlighting the Belarusian government’s desire to control information as it faces down protests.
On Thursday, two journalists from independent media outlet Belsat TV, Katsiaryna Andreyeva and Daria Chultsova, were sentenced to two years in jail on charges of violating public order. The pair had been arrested for filming live coverage of a protest in Minsk in the days after Bondarenko’s death, channeling public anger over his killing.
And on Monday, Belarusian authorities carried out a series of nationwide raids targeting journalists and rights activists. More than 40 people were rounded up, in what Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia director Hugh Williamson described as “part of a blatant intimidation campaign” intended to “eviscerate what’s left of Belarus’ civil society.”
The crackdown, which has seen more than 33,000 people detained since protests began in August, has growing drawn international condemnation. On Thursday, the U.S. imposed visa restrictions on 43 Belarusian officials it accused of undermining democracy, including law enforcement officials it said had detained and abused protesters.
And on Friday, the European Union’s foreign affairs spokesman, Peter Stano, condemned the wave of repression, calling the charges against Chultsova and Andreyeva “groundless.”
“The unacceptable harassment of human rights defenders, media workers, trade union representatives, and defence lawyers has escalated in recent days,” he said in a statement.
“Rather than escalating the use of violence, the Belarusian authorities should respect the wishes of its citizens.”