Kiev, July 6, 2018--Belarusian authorities should immediately release journalist Dzmitry Halko and drop all the charges against him, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. Halko, also known as Dmitry Galko, is scheduled to be tried by a Minsk court on July 10 on charges of assaulting a police officer at his Minsk apartment last November, according to family and friends of the journalist with whom CPJ spoke.
Halko has denied the allegations against him and said Belarusian authorities have brought the charges because of his past critical reporting about them, according to the same family and friends. If convicted, Halko faces up to six years in jail, according to the English-language Kyiv Post daily.
Nikolai Halko, the reporter's father, told CPJ via email that his son is currently being held at the Volodarka prison in Minsk. Since his arrest, Halko's health has "worsened" and he has experienced "severe headaches," according to Nikolai Halko. "Medical assistance in prison is of poor quality," he said. Nikolai Halko added that his son "is not experiencing depression; he is determined to prove his innocence."
"We call on Belarusian authorities to immediately release independent journalist Dzmitry Halko and ensure he gets necessary medical treatment," said CPJ's Europe and Central Asia research associate Gulnoza Said. "Belarus has never been a safe place for independent reporting, but jailing Halko is a new stain on official Minsk's reputation as one of the world's most repressive societies."
Belarus' Ministry of Internal Affairs did not respond to CPJ's emailed request for comment.
Belarusian authorities arrested Halko as he was entering the Stolin district of Brest Oblast in Belarus from the Ukrainian city of Lviv on April 22, Julia Garkusha, Halko's wife and a Ukrainian national, told CPJ on April 24. The details were later confirmed by Belarusian authorities, according to the Kyiv Post newspaper.
The charges against Halko stem from a confrontation with police that occurred in Minsk in November 2017 while he was celebrating his son's birthday. Officers with automatic weapons arrived at Halko's apartment saying they received a noise complaint from neighbors, Garkusha said. Halko and his 15-year-old son were arguing with police when the officers shoved father and son aside and entered the apartment, Garkusha said, adding that Halko told her he grabbed the wrist of one of the officers as they charged inside. Several party guests and one officer were slightly injured in the melee, Garkusha said. Halko left Belarus in December 2017 to stay with her in Ukraine after the Belarusian authorities opened a criminal case against him, according to Garkusha and the Kyiv Post.
Despite the threat of arrest, Halko decided to go back to Belarus in April in order to repay his tax debt, unblock his bank card, and visit his son, who had returned to Belarus a month earlier after spending time with his father in Ukraine, Garkusha told the Kyiv Post.
Halko recently worked as a fixer for Western media outlets in eastern Ukraine. In 2014, pro-Russian separatists briefly detained Halko along with other journalists in the town of Sloviansk in eastern Ukraine, CPJ reported at the time.
Between 2013 and 2015, Halko covered Ukraine's Euromaidan protests and the war in eastern Ukraine for the Belarusian-language news website Novy Chas. During that time, he also authored articles for the Kyiv Post, which recently described him as holding "pro-Ukrainian and liberal views."
In 2016, Halko became an editor for Belarusian Partisan, an opposition news website founded in 2005 by the Belarus-born journalist Pavel Sheremet, who was killed in a car bombing in July 2016 in Kiev, Ukraine.
According to the Kyiv Post, Halko resigned from the publication in 2017, citing the Belarusian government's crackdown on independent media. Belarusian Partisan has been blocked in the country by authorities since December 2017, according to the news website Charter 97.
Garkusha said that Halko, who is not allowed to speak directly with reporters while he awaits trial, believes his arrest was political in nature and connected to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko's crackdown on critical voices. According to Garkusha, the Belarusian Partisan's server had been housed inside Halko's apartment, because his ex-wife, who works at the website's systems administrator, stored them there.