Gianluca Mezzofiore (IPI)
Journalist Irina Khalip (R) and her husband former presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov are seen during an opposition rally in Minsk, December 19, 2010. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko
Belarus secret service agents have raided the apartments of detained journalist Irina Khalip and her mother, Lyutsina Khalip, seizing the journalist's computer, according to Charter 97, an independent news website.
Lyutsina is currently struggling to prevent the authorities taking custody of her three-year-old grandson. A decision is expected at the end of the month, when child welfare officers will decide whether the woman is capable of looking after the boy.
She has been taking care of Danil since the boy's parents, Khalip and Belarus opposition presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov were arrested at the end of December, following demonstrations against the re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko. The State Security Agency of the Republic of Belarus, still called the KGB, arrested a total of 24 journalists, according to the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ). Khalip and Sannikov face charges of organizing and participating in the demonstrations and could receive prison sentences of up to 15 years.
The infant, according to Lyutsina, asks constantly about his parents. The woman said she has had to pass several medical tests - drug-related, psychological and physical exams for instance - as part of an assessment of whether or not she is well enough to care for the child. Danil, too, had to undergo a medical examination.
Khalip, a correspondent for the Moscow-based newspaper Novaya Gazeta and a BAJ member, and her husband were pulled out from their car after the police had broken up the rally in central Minsk, on the night of 19 December. During the clash with the police, Sannikov was beaten and his leg was broken, according to his lawyer Pavel Sapelko. Khalip was giving a telephone interview to radio station Echo Moskvy, when she was forcibly detained.
Earlier in December, Khalip had received a CEI SEEMO Award for Outstanding Merits in Investigative Journalism. According to the BAJ website, Khalip was being held in the "KGB investigation ward". On 21 December, BAJ also reported that Khalip met her lawyer but her parents were not allowed to send her a parcel. The website said she was being treated as a suspect in a criminal case initiated under an article of the Criminal Code relating to "mass disturbances".
Prosecutions and harassments of journalists continue to stifle press freedom in Belarus. "It is impossible to talk about fair elections in Belarus in the absence of freedom of speech and freedom of the press in the country," said Andrei Alaksandrau, Deputy Chairman of BAJ, in a speech to the European Parliament in Brussels. He added that it seems that the situation for independent media in the country "will deteriorate further".
On Wednesday, the government closed Autoradio, a popular private station, accusing it of broadcasting calls for "extremist behaviour", Reuters reported.
On Tuesday, the police searched Borisovskyie Novosti, an independent weekly in Barysaw, a town in the Minsk region. All the equipment in the newsroom was seized and the home of its editor, Anatol Bukas, was raided. The newspaper was accused of having participated in the rally in the capital on 19 December.
According to the BAJ website, the private apartment of Larysa Shchyrakova, an independent journalist who works with "BelSat" TV channel, was searched by five KGB agents. Two PCs with monitors and mice, a laptop, nearly a hundred DVDs, several flash-sticks, a DVD player, and two dictating machines were seized during the search. Shchyrakova believes the search was connected with her professional activity.
IPI Press Freedom Manager Anthony Mills said: "We are deeply disturbed by the continuing crackdown on independent media in Belarus. We call upon the authorities to release the journalists imprisoned because of their work, including Irina Khalip, and to ensure that the media are free to report without fear of assault, arrest and imprisonment. We also call on the European Union to take a strong stance on the continuing violation in Belarus of fundamental human rights."
Oliver Vujovic, Secretary-General of the South & East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO), an IPI affiliate, said: "Belarus has a very important role and position in Europe, and we would like to see the country in the near future as one of the leading examples of democracy in Europe." Vujovic added: "We are open to supporting the officials in Minsk in making all necessary reforms, so that the country can attain the highest level of democracy. This is also in the interest of the authorities in Minsk. As a first small step in that direction, we are asking the authorities to respect all the human rights of Irina Khalip and her family, to guarantee her independent and also critical reporting, and to ensure that all her family members can live together with her safely."
This press release is supported by the South & East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO), an IPI affiliate.