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Trial of Polish-Belarusian journalist opens in Belarus

The trial of a Polish-Belarusian journalist opened in authoritarian Belarus on Monday, with the reporter facing up to 12 years in prison for criticising President Alexander Lukashenko's regime.

Andrzej Poczobut – a correspondent for the top Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza and a representative of the Polish minority in Belarus, who was arrested in March 2021 and accused of “calling for actions aimed at harming national security” as well as inciting hatred, appears at the Grodno regional court on January 16, 2023. – The trial of Polish-Belarusian journalist opened in authoritarian Belarus on January 16, 2023, with the reporter facing up to 12 years in prison for criticism of President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime, in a case condemned by Warsaw. (Photo by Leonid SHCHEGLOV / BELTA / AFP) / Belarus OUT / BELARUS OUT

The trial of a Polish-Belarusian journalist opened in authoritarian Belarus on Monday, with the reporter facing up to 12 years in prison for criticising President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime.

The same day Belarusian investigators announced new charges against opposition leader Sergei Tikhanovsky, who in 2021 was found guilty of organising riots and inciting social hatred and sentenced to 18 years in prison.

Andrzej Poczobut, a correspondent for top Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza and a representative of the Polish minority in Belarus, was arrested in March 2021.

He is accused of “calling for actions aimed at harming national security” as well as inciting hatred. The charges carry a punishment of between five and 12 years in prison.

Poland said Monday that the charges against him were “untrue and politically motivated”, calling for him to be freed.

Poland’s charge d’affaires at its embassy in Minsk, Marcin Wojciechowski, was not allowed inside the courtroom for the trial.

“Poczobut is an activist known at the heart of the Polish minority in Belarus and we must be at his trial,” Wojciechowski told AFP.

“It is a way to show our solidarity with him and with the representatives of the Polish minority.”

He said a handful of activists and relatives were let into the courtroom before being told to leave.

Poczobut, 49, stayed in Belarus after Lukashenko suppressed mass protests against his rule in the summer of 2020.

He is being tried in the western city of Grodno, near the Polish border.

The Viasna rights group, which included Poczobut in its list of 1,440 political prisoners in Belarus, published a photo of him looking stern in the glass defendant’s box in court.

Belarusian and Polish journalists expressed their support of Poczobut as the trial opened.

Boris Garetsky, a spokesman for the Belarusian Association of Journalists, called Poczobut “unbreakable.”

“Andrzej was offered freedom in exchange for leaving Belarus, he refused,” he said in a statement.

Adam Michnik, editor-in-chief of the Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper for which Poczobut reported, published a letter in his support.

“We are with you and we will be,” he said.

Poland has become a hub for exiled Belarusians.

– Charges against Tikhanovsky –

Also on Monday, Belarusian investigators said that Tikhanovsky, a charismatic YouTube blogger who galvanised the opposition when he ran for president to try to topple Lukashenko, faces new charges of disobeying prison officials.

The Investigative Committee accused Tikhanovsky, 44, of provoking conflicts with cellmates and disobeying prison authorities.

The announcement was made as his wife and opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya will go on trial in absentia on Tuesday on charges including high treason and conspiracy to seize power.

Tikhanovsky was not allowed to run, and his wife ran in his place, claiming victory in the 2020 vote. She now lives in exile.

Lukashenko has been in power in Belarus since 1994.

The reclusive country has been at loggerheads with the West for years.

Lukashenko welcomed Russian troops last year, who launched an offensive on Ukraine from several directions, including from Belarusian territory.