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European journalists demand release of jailed Belarusian colleagues as country marks Freedom Day

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Demonstrators hold posters during a protest demanding freedom for Belarusian political prisoners in Lisbon, Portugal, on March 6, 2021.
Demonstrators hold posters during a protest demanding freedom for Belarusian political prisoners in Lisbon, Portugal, on March 6, 2021.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Armando Franca
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More than 50 European journalists' unions on Thursday urged their governments to up the pressure on Belarus to release jailed journalists as the country marks Freedom Day.

In a joint letter, the signatories from 34 European countries, called on their respective governments "to demand from the Belarusian authorities the immediate release of the 12 imprisoned journalists, the withdrawal of administrative and criminal proceedings against Belarusian journalists, and the reopening of the Minsk press club."

They also want them to "appeal to the United Nations, the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe), the Council of Europe and the European Union, so that the international community intensifies pressure and takes action in the face of constant violations of human rights and press freedom in Belarus."

"We send you this appeal on this 25 March, which is Freedom Day in Belarus, when the opposition annually gathers in large numbers to honour the proclamation of the Belarusian People's Republic in 1918," they added.

'The repression continues'

Tens of thousands of people have been temporarily detained since the August 9 presidential election which credited long-term ruler Alexander Lukashenko with over 80 per cent of the vote. The opposition, led by Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, and Western countries including the EU, UK and US have ruled the vote as rigged.

They have imposed sanctions for election fraud and the violent crackdown on pro-democracy protests.

According to the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), 480 journalists were detained by the authorities in 2020 with 97 cases of administrative arrests recorded as well as 62 cases of physical violence.

It reported on Twitter on Thursday that one journalist, Yazep Palubiatka from the Gazeta Slominskaya, had been released with a fine, taking the number of detained journalists down to 11.

But the Viasna human rights centre also reported that authorities had detained dozens of people on Wednesday ahead of the planned Freedom Day protests. The NGO says there are currently 299 political prisoners in Belarus.

Mogens Blicher Bjerregard, President of the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), said the signatories welcomed Wednesday's decision by the UN Human Rights Council to set up an investigative team to gather evidence about the excessive use of force and torture by authorities in Belarus on protesters and journalists.

"But this is not enough. The repression continues and intensifies. The regime of the dictator Lukashenko must release all political prisoners without delay" and "end all pending prosecutions," he added.

Seamus Dooley, assistant general secretary for Britain's National Union of Journalists (NUJ) said in a statement: "Today we have seen a significant show of unity and solidarity amongst journalists' leaders and trade union representatives, to stand up for journalists and the media in Belarus."

"The 12 journalists in jail must be released immediately and we are seeking support from European governments to use their influence to support global press freedom," he went on.

'Intimidation, violence, and lethal force'

Several countries have also Freedom Day to reaffirm their support for the Belarusian people.

The three Baltic countries — Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania — announced that their sanctions now target an additional "118 (Belarusian) regime's law enforcement minions responsible for the systemic oppression of the pro-democracy movement."

Poland's permanent representation in the EU said on Twitter that they "stand with Belarus and its courageous people."

"We take this opportunity to call on EU institutions not to turn their back on this struggle for basic freedoms and democracy."

The US embassy in Minsk said in a statement issued to mark the occasion that "currently, Belarusians of all ages are standing up for the right to determine the destiny of their country. In attempting to have their voices heard, many pay a heavy price as the regime resorts to intimidation, violence, and lethal force to maintain its grip on power."

"The United States congratulates the people of Belarus on the March 25 anniversary and looks forward to the day when the people of Belarus will define their own future," it added.