Belarus: Imprisoned for a Poem

The human rights organisation considers the two men to be prisoners of conscience and urges the authorities to release them immediately and unconditionally.

Valery Levonevsky, the president of the national strike committee of market traders, and the deputy president Alexander Vasiliev were sentenced to two years in prison on 7 September by the Leninsky district court in Grodno for publicly insulting the president.

The judge decreed that a leaflet they had distributed prior to demonstrations on 1 May contained a public insult to the President. It called on people to take part in May Day demonstrations “to come and say that you are against ‘somebody’ going on holiday skiing in Austria and having a good time at your cost.” President Lukashenka is known to have spent his holidays in Austria.

The reverse of the leaflet contained an anonymous satirical poem about the cost of living in Belarus entitled “The Utilities Bill or ‘the good life’.” In addition Alexander Vasiliev was convicted of disturbing public order by organising demonstrations on 1 May in Grodno. The judge also decreed that computers and other equipment that had earlier been taken from Mr Levonevsky and Mr Vasiliev would be confiscated “for the good of the state” and both men were ordered to pay fines of 643,278 Belarusian roubles (approximately £160) each.

Valery Levonevsky was first arrested on 1 May in Grodno and on 3 May sentenced to 15 days’ detention for distributing leaflets calling for an unauthorized May Day rally. His son Vladimir was sentenced to 13 days for the same offence. Valery Levonevsky’s detention was extended on 18 May and he was formally charged on 19 May with publicly insulting the president. Previously on 29 April his three Children's rights, Dmitry, Vladimir and Ekaterina, had been briefly detained for distributing leaflets at a market in Grodno.

The two men are now held in Grodno remand centre. They have 10 days in which to appeal their sentence.

Background

Valery Levonevsky is an outspoken critic of President Lukashenka and has protested about financial and administrative pressures being imposed on small businesses. Since 1996 he has been under close scrutiny by the authorities and subjected to searches, confiscation of property and questioning over various charges.

In 2002 a strike committee led by Mr Levonevsky organised a strike of 120,000 small traders calling for President Lukashenka to be ousted and blaming him personally for the suppression of small businesses in Belarus.

In April 2003 he was arrested while delivering a petition from market traders to the parliament and subsequently sentenced to 15 days’ imprisonment for taking part in the “March for a Better Life” on 12 March.

Mr Levonevsky and Mr Vasiliyev have been convicted under Article 368 (2) of the Criminal Code (Insulting the President). This is very similar to Article 367(2) (Libel Against the President of Belarus) which has been used in the past to suppress legitimate criticism of the government.

In June Aksana Novikava was convicted under Article 367 (2) for distributing satirical leaflets and in 2002 Nikolai Markevich and Pavel Mozheiko - the editor and staff writer of Pagonia newspaper - were convicted under the same article for raising concerns about President Lukashenka’s involvement in 'disappearances'.

In its Resolution on Freedom of the Press (Resolution 1372) in April 2004, the Council of Europe condemned the use of Article 367 to subject journalists to imprisonment and forced labour for criticism of the President and state officials.

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