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Belarus: IPI condemns prison sentences handed to two more journalists

Ihar Karney and Andrey Tolchyn jailed for 3 and 2.5 years, respectively

Detention of peaceful protesters in Minsk, Belarus (archive image) EPA-EFE/STR

The IPI global network condemns the prison terms handed last month to two more Belarusians in relation to their past work as independent journalists. Former reporter Ihar Karney was sentenced to three years in a penal colony while camera operator Andrey Tolchyn received a 2.5 year sentence.

“The sentences against Ihar Karney and Andrey Tolchyn show that the Lukashenko regime will stop at nothing in its repression of independent media and civil society in Belarus,” IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen said. “We continue to stand in solidarity with the exceptionally oppressed Belarusian media sector, demand the release of imprisoned journalists, as well call on authorities to engage in a dialogue with society, so as to ensure the basic rights of citizens, including freedom of the press.”

Ihar Karney

On Friday, March 22, Karney was found guilty of “participating in an extremist formation”, a crime which can be punished by up to six years of prison. Karney was convicted and sentenced after just two days of hearings closed to independent observers. He had been held in detention pending his trial since July 2023. 

Belarusian state-controlled media earlier reported that Karney was sentenced for having worked with the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), a professional association of journalists which was banned in 2023 as an “extremist formation”. Barys Haretski, the deputy chairman of BAJ, told IPI that the group could neither confirm nor deny these claims, as this would “hand extra arguments to the authorities”, Haretski told IPI.

Authorities also accused Karney of “creating negative materials insulting the head of state, representatives of the government, journalists and citizens,” according to Belarus Segodnya, a pro-government outlet.

Karney had previously collaborated with several independent Belarusian media including the Belarusian service of RFE/RL, known locally as Radio Svaboda, until it was forced to close its offices in 2021.

He had previously been arrested and jailed for 10 days in 2020, when he participated in mass protests against the falsified presidential vote. In May 2023, he was reportedly interrogated at length by the Belarusian KGB but was eventually set free.

Andrey Tolchyn

Andrey Tolchyn was found guilty of “assisting extremist activity” and “slander” of Alexander Lukashenko, punishable by up to six and five years of prison, respectively.

Following his initial arrest in September, authorities did not communicate on Tolchyn’s situation for several months, and charges against him were only confirmed when his trial was announced at the end of February. In November, the Belarusian human rights defence community recognized the camera operator as a political prisoner.

Authorities did not make clear what activities or publications by Tolchyn eventually led to his arrest. In 2010, following fraudulent presidential elections in Belarus, Tolchyn was fined and handed short-term jail sentences (up to 15 days) several times. Following the 2020 protests, Belarusian security forces accused Tolchyn and Larysa Shchyrakova, another journalist from the city of Homel, who has been behind bars since December 2022, of participating in illegal mass gatherings, ignoring that they were there in their capacities as journalists. 

According to relatives of Tolchyn quoted by BAJ, the 64-year-old suffers from chronic illnesses, and they fear his health could rapidly deteriorate if he is kept behind bars.

Belarusian authorities are notorious for the intensity of their repression against independent media, with 34 media workers behind bars as of March 2024.

Belarusian media operate in an exceptionally hostile environment. Independent outlets are banned as “extremist” and are forced to operate in exile as working with an “extremist” group is a criminal offence in Belarus.