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The political trial against Andrzej Poczobut, a Polish-Belarusian journalist, leading member of the independent Union of Poles in Belarus, and Wyborcza’s long-time foreign correspondent has come to an end. The verdict was announced on Wednesday, February 8th, by Judge Dmitry Bubenchik, known for adjudicating in cases against activists considered a threat by the Belarusian regime. Poczobut was sentenced to eight years in a high security penal colony.
As reported by Radio Svaboda (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty), Poczobut was found guilty of encouraging actions aimed at harming the national security of Belarus, attempting to rehabilitate Nazism, and inciting ethnic hostility.
The Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned the verdict. "We condemn the unjust sentence handed down by the court of an authoritarian state. Andrzej Poczobut is a Polish and Belarusian patriot. We stand behind him and will continue to do so" - Łukasz Jasina, the ministry’s spokesman, wrote on Twitter. - The day will come when Andrzej Poczobut and other Poles in Belarus will live in a free country - he added.
The leader of the Belarusian democratic opposition Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya called the decision "Lukashenko's personal revenge". "Andrzej refused any deals with the unlawful regime. Now we must do everything possible to free him along with all other political hostages" – she wrote on Twitter.
In an interview with Wyborcza, Tsikhanouskaya points out that in the eyes of the Belarusian authorities, Andrzej Poczobut has come to "personify everything the regime is afraid of - freedom, democracy, steadfastness and strength"- she enumerates, and adds: - By degrading him and throwing him in jail, Lukashenko is trying to make Belarusians believe that the West, which both Poczobut and Poland are associated with, is a hotbed of evil.
In her view, the Belarusian regime feels untouchable, and Lukashenko himself treats political prisoners as hostages which can be used to gain leverage - We are all obliged today to speak out about Andrzej and other political prisoners. We must do everything we can to make the regime start paying for mistreating them. We must unite, this is our common fight for our freedom and our future- the Belarusian opposition leader told "Wyborcza".
Details about the course of the trial, the final charges, witness testimony, the prosecution's demands or the defense line have not been revealed to the public. Andrzej’s trial, just like the trials of other Belarusian political prisoners, was kept secret from the very beginning. During the first hearing held on January 16, activists, independent journalists, representatives of the Polish state, but also members of the journalist's family were asked to leave the courtroom after only 15 minutes.
We know that the trial was intense only thanks to the brief messages that Andrzej Poczobut was able to pass on to his wife Oksana. In his last letter, the journalist wrote her that the hearings were taking place every day and were so long that he was unable to regularly update his family about his condition. "Send greetings to everyone who has not forgotten me, who remembers, prays for me and simply worries about my fate. (...) Whenever they take me to court, I always have to think that I am now very close to home, about 700-800 meters. I haven't been this close in a long time. It even makes me feel uncomfortable. After all, I'm used to being far away" - he wrote.
Members of the Belarusian democratic opposition point out that the trial was kept secret for a reason. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the unofficial winner of the last presidential election, wrote in an article for Wyborcza: "The regime’s allegations are absurd. And, of course, what awaits Andrzej cannot be called a trial or a court. It is a farce. It is an attempt to destroy strong and courageous people. An attempt to break Andrzej (...)". She was echoed by Franak Viacorka, her senior advisor: "The trial has been kept secret because it is obvious to the authorities that Andrzej is innocent, and the fabricated files do not contain any evidence"- he said.
The Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs called for the journalist's release. "The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is disappointed to learn that the trial of Andrzej Poczobut in front of a Belarusian court has begun (...) The allegations against him are politically motivated and untrue" – reads the official communiqué issued by the ministry, which at the same time assured the public of its constant efforts, including non-public ones, to free Poczobut.
Meanwhile, Belarusian propaganda launched a smear campaign against the journalist and his family. In the main editions of state news, Andrzej was portrayed as an "extremist" who committed "destructive actions against the Belarusian state", "sympathized with the Warsaw regime" and "praised the terrorist activities of the Home Army". Viewers were told that Poczobut collaborated with Polish authorities, who paid him to destabilize the situation in Belarus.
Andrzej Poczobut was arrested on March 25, 2021 in Grodno. Belarusian authorities accuse him of inciting ethnic hatred and encouraging actions aimed at harming the country’s national security. The latter charge, as explained by Boris Haretsky, deputy chairman of the officially no longer existing Belarusian Association of Journalists, is related to "calling for the imposition of sanctions against the Belarusian state".
Among the evidence used by the prosecutor to bring charges are Poczobut's articles that were published in Wyborcza. One of them concerns the 2020 protests following Lukashenko's rigged presidential election. The other two describe the Soviet aggression against Poland in 1939 and the anti-communist underground in the Grodno region.
Viasna, an independent human rights organization, has long recognized Andrzej as a political prisoner.
While waiting for his sentence, in jail, Andrzej has been tortured by the Belarusian authorities. The journalist was denied medicine, restricted in his rights to write and receive letters, and even held in a cell located right next to the so-called "death cell", where prisoners likely to receive the death penalty await their trial.
Throughout this time, Andrzej Poczobut did not lose his composure and strength of spirit, even though he had no doubts about the nature of the trial and the "justice" of the verdict. "I have no illusions about the outcome [of the trial], I will calmly accept the verdict and go to the gulag with a calm conscience. Well, such is my fate. I have always known that if such times come to Belarus, I will go to prison. As my situation today shows, I was not wrong" - he wrote in one of the letters. In another one, he stressed: "We do not choose the times in which we come to live, but we choose how to live in those times. I think of those who sat behind these walls in the 1940s-50s and also waited for their trial. It was harder for them; it was real hell in those days".
This is not the first time Andrzej has found himself behind bars due to his activities and criticism of the regime. In 2011, Poczobut was arrested for insulting Alexander Lukashenko. He then spent three months in detention. The court decided on a three-year prison sentence, two years probation.
In a recent report released by the independent organization Reporters Without Borders, we read that Belarus is the most dangerous country in Europe for journalists. Last year, the European Center for Press and Media Freedom noted that at least 33 journalists are sitting behind bars in Belarusian prisons. Human rights activists warn that the number of political prisoners in the country is increasing every day. Currently, there are nearly 1,500 of them.
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