Belarusian court hands down five year sentence to Polish TV journalist

A court in Gomel, Belarus, has sentenced TVP journalist Iryna Slaunikava to five years in a penal colony after finding her guilty of "creating an extremist formation", the independent Belarusian television channel Belsat has reported.

Belsat's website reported that Slaunikava's trial began on June 23, 2022. Five court hearings were held before the announcement of the verdict.

Director of Belsat TV Agnieszka Romaszewska-Guzy, speaking at a protest held in Warsaw on Tuesday against the court's verdict, said "we hope that our colleagues (Slaunikava and another convicted Belarusian journalist, Katsiaryna Andreyeva - PAP) will not serve their sentences in full. Our appeal to all authorities: European and Polish, of the entire free world is as follows: act on the release of journalists. Let us also not forget about other political prisoners in Belarus".

Slaunikava, a Belarusian journalist and TVP correspondent, has been in custody since October last year. She is considered a prisoner of conscience and her trial is seen as politically motivated.

As previously reported by the independent Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAZ), Slaunikava's trial was held behind closed doors, and even her father was not allowed to attend the hearings.

The journalist and her husband Alyaksandr Loyka were detained in October at the airport in Minsk. They were first arrested for offences of `allegedly "disseminating extremist material", and then "petty hooliganism". After 45 days of arrest, Loyka was released. Slaunikava, on the other hand, heard further charges, this time criminal - initially for "the organisation of activities that seriously violate public order", followed by charges for "the creation of an extremist formation".

Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki wrote on social media that "freedom of the press, speech and an uninhibited right to express one's opinion are the foundations of democracy.

"The sentencing by the Lukashenko regime of the journalist Iryna Slaunikava to five years in a penal colony is an absolute scandal, a violation of all norms of civilisation, human rights and journalistic standards," he also wrote. "This unacceptable sentence will be met with an immediate and decisive reaction by Poland at an international level".

Later on Wednesday evening, Poland's Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Marcin Przydacz expressed his indignation at Belarus' "unacceptable violation of human rights and the freedom of the press" in sentencing Iryna Slaunikava to five years in a penal colony.

"The charge d'affaires of Belarus has been summoned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Tomorrow morning he will be presented with a firm protest from the Polish side and a demand for the immediate release of not only the convicted journalist, but also other people, including journalists unlawfully deprived of their liberty, most notably Andrzej Poczobut," Przydacz told PAP.

Slaunikava is an economist by profession. In the past, she has cooperated with BAZ and Belsat TV, and at the time of her arrest Slaunikava was working as a journalist for Poland's TVP news channel.

There are currently 29 journalists and media workers behind bars in Belarus, reports BAZ. According to the Wiasna human rights organisation, there are currently at least 1,253 political prisoners being held in the country.