OUR PEOPLE IN TROUBLE
Aleh Hruzdzilovich Released from Prison in Belarus
Aleh Hruzdzilovich, a journalist with RFE/RL’s Belarus Service, has been released from prison in Belarus after serving nine months of an unjust sentence.
In a statement, RFE/RL President and CEO Jamie Fly said “Aleh was robbed of time he will never get back with his family while wrongly imprisoned, and I am overjoyed that he will now be reunited with his wife and other loved ones. I am grateful to members of the international and advocacy communities for their unwavering support of Aleh’s case, but our work is not done. Ihar Losik and Andrey Kuznechyk should also be released immediately.”
An award-winning journalist, Hruzdzilovich was arrested on December 23, 2021, and tried on March 2 for “taking part” in mass protests in the aftermath of Alexander Lukashenka’s fraudulent re-election. He was sentenced to one-and-a-half-years in a penal colony. Hruzdzilovich consistently rejected the charges, stating he was working as an RFE/RL correspondent with Foreign Ministry accreditation at an August 2020 protest, and covered two other protests in October 2020 on assignment for his employer, the local newspaper Narodnaya Volya. The 63-year-old journalist previously served a 10-day sentence in July 2021 and a 15-day sentence in November 2020 for reporting on the protests.
Two more Belarus Service journalists - Ihar Losik and Andrey Kuznechyk - remain in prison in Belarus.
Darya Losik was able to visit her husband for a day at the Navapolatsak hard labor colony in early September. In mid-August, Darya wrote on Instagram that bailiffs had begun selling the family’s property, despite Losik’s statement that he wanted to buy it back. In July, bailiffs entered the Losiks’ home and took inventory of their possessions, stating they would sell them if the family did not buy them back to cover the 600,000 Belarusian rubles (approximately $230,000) in damages that Losik is liable for.
Losik was arrested in June 2020 in advance of the rigged presidential election. He was tried on charges widely considered to have been fabricated by Belarusian authorities, including “organization and preparation of actions that grossly violate public order” and “preparation for participation in riots” and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Andrey Kuznechyk’s appeal was denied by the Belarusian Supreme Court and he was transferred to Navapolatsak hard labor colony on September 2, where he was put under quarantine for two weeks. Fellow political prisoner and RFE/RL journalist Ihar Losik is also serving his term at Navapolatsak. In June 2022, Kuznechyk was sentenced to six years in a maximum-security prison on charges of “creating or participating in an extremist organization.”
A 43-year-old father of two, Kuznechyk was first arrested on November 25, 2021 and has been in detention ever since.
Vladyslav Yesypenko Receives Free Media Award
RFE/RL journalist Vladyslav Yesypenko, who is imprisoned in Russian-occupied Crimea, is the recipient of a Free Media Award from the Fritt Ord Foundation and ZEIT-Stiftung for his reporting in Crimea following Russia’s illegal annexation in 2014. Andriy Dubchak, a contributor with RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, was also among the recipients for his coverage of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine from the frontlines of the Donbas region. The award ceremony will be held in Oslo, Norway on October 17.
“Thank you to the Fritt Ord Foundation and ZEIT-Stiftung for recognizing the extraordinary courage Vlad has shown in his reporting from Russian-occupied Crimea,” said Jamie Fly, President and CEO of RFE/RL. “Until his detention, Vlad helped open the world’s eyes to the daily cruelty of life under occupation. He should be returned home to his family immediately.”
Ukraine’s Zmina Human Rights Centre hosted an event in Kyiv on August 23 marking one-and-a-half years since Yesypenko’s imprisonment. A dubbed live stream of the event is available here.
On August 18, the Moscow-controlled Supreme Court of Russian-occupied Crimea shortened Yesypenko’s prison term in a penal colony by one year to five years; a fine of 110,000 rubles ($1,835) remains.
Yesypenko's wife Kateryna told RFE/RL her husband would continue to appeal the verdict. “Because of the decision by the court of appeals, we now have a very good chance,” she said, adding that her husband was present at the hearing and looked well. “In half-a-year, we can request an early release. If the sentence remained six years in prison, the time for early release would be in one year."
AFGHANISTAN ONE YEAR LATER
To mark the one-year anniversary of the fall of Kabul, RFE/RL held a public briefing for stakeholders on August 15th. The briefing covered the state of independent media in Afghanistan and RFE/RL’s continued operations after the Taliban’s takeover.
RFE/RL President and CEO Jamie Fly stressed that RFE/RL has not changed its programming to accommodate Taliban concerns and spoke about the plight of Afghan journalists, including some of RFE/RL’s own, who continue to await evacuation.
“First and foremost remains the plight of Afghan journalists,” said Fly. “It remains incredibly important that governments create opportunities for Afghans in vulnerable situations...governments need to make visas available, they need to allow Afghan refugees from these what should be protected classes.” In a piece for the Washington Post, Josh Rogin called on the U.S. administration to honor its promises to safely evacuate more than a dozen RFE/RL staff and their families who remain in the country. According to Reporters Without Borders, more than 80 journalists have been arbitrarily detained since August 2021, and 50 have been the direct victims of violence at the hands of the Taliban's security forces.
Despite the Taliban’s crackdown on free media, RFE/RL’s Afghan Service continues to report on the most important stories in the country, including demonstrations for women’s rights, changes to girls’ education, human rights abuses, and other political and societal shifts in the past year, and is expanding programming to cover topics the Taliban does not want discussed.
INCIDENTS AND THREATS
Russia: Journalists Arrested, Searched, Interrogated, and Smeared as “Foreign Agents”
Russian Service contributor Yelena Shukaeva was arrested in Yekaterinburg on August 17 and sentenced to 14 days in prison, after which she began a hunger strike.
On the same day, Russian authorities in Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan, detained and searched the homes of seven contributors to RFE/RL’s Tatar-Bashkir Service: Nelya Biktimirova, Aysilu Kadyrova, Alsu Kiyamova, Aliya Sabirova, Elza Nabiullina, Iskander Yasaveyev, and Marina Yudkevich. All seven were released after questioning. Police seized the journalists’ phones, computers, and passports. Only Marina Yudkevich has had her passport returned, enabling her to leave the country to receive cancer treatment.
The contributors were interrogated and made witnesses in a case of “justifying terrorism and violence against representatives of the authorities.”
“These abusive charges against independent journalists and commentators are ludicrous," said Jamie Fly, President and CEO of RFE/RL. "Criminalizing the truth and those who report it will not stop us from bringing honest, independent news to Russians seeking alternatives to the Kremlin’s lies and manipulations." The Committee to Protect Journalists also issued a statement, calling on Russian authorities to stop intimidating RFE/RL journalists and contributors.
Yelena Shukaeva was subsequently named a “foreign agent” by Russian authorities on September 9 for reposting links to a Navalny team investigation on her personal social media feed. RFE/RL Siberia.Realities reporter Andrey Afanasyev was also named a “foreign agent,” bringing the total number of RFE/RL journalists labeled foreign agents to 30.
Crackdown Against Independent Media in Tajikistan
RFE/RL President and CEO Jamie Fly sent a letter to Tajik President Enomali Rahmon on August 30, protesting a new wave of harassment and efforts to hinder the work of Radio Ozodi journalists. This follows a February letter to Minister of Foreign Affairs Sirojiddin Muhriddin. The media situation in the country has rapidly declined in recent months, with several Tajik journalists and bloggers detained following Dushanbe’s bloody crackdown on protests in the Gorno-Badakhshan region.