A Belarusian journalist and a doctor went on trial in Minsk on Friday accused of disclosing medical records of a protester who died following police custody amid a crackdown on opposition.
The new high-profile trial began after a Belarusian court this week sentenced two television journalists to two years in prison for covering a protest last year, the first lengthy jail term in a legal crackdown on independent news media.
Last year, Roman Bondarenko, a 31-year-old former soldier, died from brain damage after police arrested him at a protest in Minsk amid a crackdown on the opposition following the disputed re-election of strongman Alexander Lukashenko.
Investigators later said Bondarenko showed signs of intoxication, but independent Belarusian media cited a doctor as saying no alcohol had been found in his body.
On Friday, Katerina Borisevich, a journalist for the independent Tut.by news website who published Bondarenko’s story, and Dr. Artyom Sorokin, who is accused of releasing the protester’s medical information to the media, appeared in court on charges of “disclosing medical records, with grave consequences”.
The two have been in pre-trial detention since November and face up to three years in prison.
Wearing a bright red blazer, Borisevich smiled at the cameras from inside the cage for defendants, making a heart shape with her hands, a gesture common among the Belarusian opposition.
According to the prosecution, Borisevich, 36, convinced Sorokin, 37, to disclose information about the protester and share copies of his medical documents with journalists.
– ‘Hoping for fair trial’ –
Bondarenko’s mother Yelena told journalists at the start of the trial that Borisevich and Sorokin “didn’t break any laws” and had her permission to share information about him.
“I am hoping for a fair trial,” she was quoted by Tut.by as saying.
No independent media outlets were accredited to cover the trial, which will be held behind closed doors since the case materials contain medical documents.
This week, the Prosecutor General’s Office said it had opened a criminal case into Bondarenko’s death, but added that it had found no police involvement in the bodily harm caused to the protester.
Huge protests erupted in Belarus in August after Lukashenko claimed a landslide election win over opposition figure Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.
Authorities responded with a fierce crackdown, with police using rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannon against demonstrators. Several people including Bondarenko have died in the crackdown.
Thousands rallied in Minsk last November to mourn his death.
The European Union condemned Bondarenko’s death and the crackdown on protesters, imposing sanctions on Lukashenko and his allies. Fresh EU sanctions targeting Belarusian businessmen were introduced on Thursday.
Moscow strongly supports Lukashenko, however, with President Vladimir Putin expected to meet with him next week.