Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 19

On charges of crossing the Belarus-Lithuania border unlawfully, a Belarusan district court yesterday sentenced Russian Public Television (ORT) Minsk bureau chief Pavel Sheremet to two years in prison, and his cameraman Dmitry Zavadsky to eighteen months. The court suspended the sentence for a one-year probationary period. During this time the two journalists are obligated to remain at the authorities’ disposal. If they commit any offense, including an administrative one, they will serve the full prison term.

The prosecution had asked for sentences of three years and two years, respectively. Judge Vitaly Kazakievich dismissed some of the prosecution counts, and ruled that the KGB’s pre-trial investigation had been marred by procedural violations. The defense immediately announced that it would appeal the sentence in regional court. In Moscow, ORT general director Kseniya Ponomaryova yesterday affirmed the management’s faith in Sheremet’s and Zavadsky’s innocence and promised to support the defense in the appeal instances. Meanwhile, according to Ponomaryova, management can not reemploy the two journalists because "that would mean sending them straight back to jail." (Russian agencies, ORT, January 28)

One day before the sentencing, owners and top executives of ORT, Russian Television and Radio (RTR), Independent Television (NTV), and the Itar-Tass, RIA-Novosti and Interfax news agencies conferred in Minsk with President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Media owners Boris Berezovsky — who substantially controls ORT — and Vladimir Gusinsky led the group. The closed-doors talks with Lukashenka focused on "normalizing relations" between Russian media and official Belarus and creating a "common information space," including a special television channel of the Russia-Belarus Union. (Ekho Moskvy, RIA, January 27). The meeting suggests the possibility of a deal in the Sheremet-Zavadsky court case. However, judge Kazakievich had displayed a certain level of independence throughout the six-week-long trial.

The case, in progress since last July, has generated massive criticism of the Lukashenka regime in Russia. Internationally, it has embarrassed the Kremlin as Lukashenka’s partner-in-union. After some hesitation, President Yeltsin and top government officials decided to ignore the scandal and to pursue their special relationship with Lukashenka without regard for this and other human rights issues. Yesterday’s relatively lenient sentence in Belarus is a face-saver for Lukashenka and should also reduce the Kremlin’s political discomfort.

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