VILNIUS - In response to the growing number of Polish minority activists thrown into Belarusian jails, Lithuania-based Polish journalists staged a symbolic protest in front of the Belarusian Embassy in Vilnius against the persecution of their colleagues.
Several journalists assembled in front of the Belarusian Embassy on Aug. 5 to read a statement addressed to the Belarusian government. Representatives of the Polish media expressed indignation over the conviction of their colleague, Andrzej Pisalnik, by a Grodno court.
"A journalist who has been fighting for the freedom of speech in Belarus has been convicted. We categorically denounce the methods used by the Belarusian police, the KGB, and the Belarusian court, and we assess this as a violation of human rights and freedom of the press," read the address of journalists.
On Aug. 1, Belarusian police arrested Pisalnik, editor-in-chief of Glos znad Niemna, a Polish minority newspaper based in Belarus, and a contributor to the Polish daily Rzeczpospolita. Pisalnik, who is also an informal spokesman for the Belarus Union of Poles, was detained on charges of "participating in an illegal gathering," a concert organized by the union to mark Belarus' independence day on July 3.
"It was rather strange for us as journalists to stage the protest, as we are usually in the position of covering them. But it was our duty to pin point what's happening there, to tell about the violations of human rights," told Aleksander Borowik, editor-in-chief of the Polish language Kurier Wilenski. "This was also a sally of our emotions since we believe that Lithuania maintains a position too discreet in respect to Belarus."
Following the protest, Borowik said he received threats from two individuals who supported Lukashenko's policy.
Some 400,000 Poles live in Belarus out of a population of just under 10 million. President Alexander Lukashenko accused the Polish minority of plotting to overthrow him.
"The man just sat there listening to the concert. And he gets convicted for that. That's nonsense!" said Iness Todryk, a colleague of Pisalnik and journalist for Glos znad Niemna. "I'm afraid that they might detain all of us."
Lukashenko's government has turned on the Belarus Union of Poles as one of the few remaining outlets for independent thought and expression in the country.
"We're constantly persecuted 's our telephones have been cut off, we are being followed when we take out the trash. Afterwards, we watch the same people delving in what we'd thrown away. I know the license plates of the cars that follow us by heart," Todryk said.
She added that she had to be careful not to converse with too many people simultaneously in public; otherwise she may be accused of staging unauthorized pickets. She also said that activists of the Polish community were forced to pay thousands of dollars in fines for their actions.
"Little by little they want to make us seem like criminals, so it wouldn't seem all that political. The opposition has already been wiped out. It's our turn now," Todryk said. "Elder people tell us that such methods were used in 1939, only this time we are not being taken to Siberia but imprisoned here."
Before the Polish media was shut down in Belarus, Pisalnik and his colleagues were known as independent voices, not mincing their words when speaking about problems in Belarus.
"Pisalnik is a very strong-minded person who used to tell the truth no matter what. Obviously, he wasn't favorable to the government, and this was how they attempted to hush him up," said Wanda Zajaczkowska, a friend of Pisalnik and journalist for the Vilnius-based daily Kurier Wilenski.
The conflict between Belarusian authorities and the Polish community erupted in March, when the Belarusian government was clearly irked by the removal of a fairly compliant leader of the Belarusian Union of Poles, Tadeusz Kruczkowski, in a March election and his replacement by Andzelika Borys at the organization's convent. The Belarusian Justice Ministry qualified Borys' election and the resolutions of Congress as illegitimate. The democratically elected Borys was accused of fraud in a harassment campaign directed against the union leaders.
A police raid at the union's headquarters and the detention of several organization leaders followed.
Poland has been calling on the EU to take action against Belarus. Minsk, in response, accused Poland of backing a U.S.-supported effort to unseat the government. Lukashenko accused Poland of interfering in Belarusian affairs and seeking to provoke mass protests against his government.
Due to the continuing dispute between Belarus and Poland, Warsaw recalled its ambassador from Belarus and Minsk appears to be considering the recall of its ambassador to Poland.