A Belarusian court on Friday began the trial of a journalist and a doctor who were arrested in November after contradicting official statements about the killing of a protester, who the authorities suggested had died in a drunken brawl. Katerina Borisevich from the local news outlet TUT.BY and doctor Artyom Sorokin face three years in prison for divulging medical secrets after reporting there was no alcohol in the bloodstream of protester Roman Bondarenko when he died.
The authorities have alleged that revealing such information posed a threat to public safety. The death of 31-year-old Bondarenko became a flashpoint in months of mass protests against veteran President Alexander Lukashenko, who launched a violent crackdown that has triggered Western sanctions on Minsk but support from Russia.
Friday’s trial caps a week in which the authorities jailed two journalists for filming protests and also started the trial of one of Lukashenko’s main electoral opponents on corruption charges that the opposition says are spurious. Witnesses said Bondarenko was detained after a scuffle with people in plain clothes who came to a playground to remove red-and-white ribbons representing the protest movement.
He died in hospital after what protesters say was a severe beating by security forces. The interior ministry denied responsibility and Lukashenko said Bondarenko had been drunk. The defendants appeared in a cage inside the courtroom on Friday morning. Borisevich, 36, smiled and made a “V” for victory sign.
“The charge is absolutely absurd,” Liudmila Chekina, the head of TUT.BY, told reporters at the trial, saying the medical information was published in the public interest. Dozens of doctors and journalists came to court on Friday, but only 30 people were allowed into the courtroom. After being told that the trial would be closed, people in the corridor began to chant “Katya, we are with you”.
The United States announced visa restrictions on 43 Belarusians on Thursday, including law enforcement officials it accused of detaining and abusing peaceful demonstrators. Also targeted were judges and prosecutors allegedly involved in sentencing protesters and journalists. (Writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Alison Williams)