Russian journalist sentenced in Belarus

Belarus presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov and his wife Irina Khalip. (RIA Novosti / Sergey Samokhin)
A Russian journalist and the wife of one of Belarus’ presidential candidates Irina Khalip has received a two-year suspended sentence for her part in the December riots in Minsk.

­A district court in the Belarusian capital Minsk on Monday sentenced Khalip, a reporter working for Russian Novaya Gazeta newspaper to two years in prison for taking part in mass actions that blatantly violated public order. The sentence was suspended for two years because Khalip has a small child that will be left without care if the mother is in custody. Khalip’s husband and the father of the child, Andrei Sannikov, was sentenced to five years in prison after the court found him guilty of organizing the riots on December 19 last year – the day of the presidential election.

Irina Khalip was detained together with her husband on December 20. At first they were kept in a pre-trial detention center of the Belarus State Security Service but later Khalip was put under house arrest so that she could take care of her 4-year-old son.

Khalip said after the court session on Monday that she would appeal the sentence. “First of all I will write a letter to my husband, I will then order professional cleaning of my apartment where security officers remained for three months, change all locks because the keys were changing hands like a village during the civil war and only then will I deal with the sentence appeal,” she told RIA Novosti news agency. She added that she will also protest the measures applied to her – both the imprisonment and the house arrest.  

In an interview with Interfax news agency, Khalip said that she considered herself a hostage of Belarusian authorities as the suspended sentence means she can be put in prison for any wrongdoing. At the same time, she said that she was sure that her husband would be released before the end of his five-year prison term and the authorities would use it as a PR stunt when seeking credit or food aid from Western countries.  She added that she considered her husband to be a national hero and that Sannikov’s election campaign was continuing.

The sentences to Khalip and Sannikov prompted a string of negative comments from journalists, rights activists and other public figures.

The international group Human Rights Watch said that the sentence to Khalip was politically motivated. “Without any doubt, the process was politically motivated and our position is that it is necessary to have an independent investigation of the December 19 events and their consequences," the head of the Moscow office of the organization told Interfax news agency. “All these sentences cause much grief. Unfortunately, Belarus continues the tendency of suppressing the free voices in the political and media space,” she added.

Dmitry Muratov, the Chief Editor of Novaya Gazeta, said that the sentence to the journalist was absolutely unjust even though it was relatively soft. “In any case, that means that the sentence was a conviction which is impossible according to the constitution. She was doing her journalistic duty and partially her duty as the spouse of one of Belarus’ presidential candidates,” Muratov said. He also agreed that the move had certain traits of a hostage-taking. “She cannot leave Minsk she must be home at 10pm and if she opens her mouth and writes something she will be in prison camps immediately,” the journalist said. 

Russian Foreign Ministry on Monday called upon Belarus authorities to fulfill their international obligations to observe the Human Rights. The ministry’s official spokesman said that the sentences to the participants of the December protests caused bewilderment and raised a number of questions.

So far, Belarus’ courts have sentenced 25 people to various punishments over the December 19 riots. Several people, including former presidential candidates Nikolai Statkevich, Dmitry Uss, Vladimir Neklyayev and Vitaly Rymashevskiy are still on trial.

One former candidate, Aleksei Mikhalevich, has fled the country and received political asylum in the Czech Republic.