300 days. That is how long Andrzej Poczobut has been sitting in a Belarusian prison on fabricated charges. The authorities accused him (along with the head of the Union of Poles in Belarus, Andzelika Borys) of “inciting hatred on the grounds of nationality”. They may face a dozen or so years of labor camps.
The number of the days Poczobut has spent behind bars is published daily by the Polish leading daily, Gazeta Wyborcza. Apart from that, not much is happening in the case of the journalist and the other prisoners. Poland seems to be forgetting its heroes. It seems that we would rather remember the dead. And if so, it’s mainly for show.
Tuesday January 18, 2022. The Polityka‘s Passport Gala – one of the most prestigious cultural awards in Poland. Jana Shostak, a Polish-Belarusian artist receives the Passport in the category of visual arts for “the perfect combination of art and social activism”. Shostak is wearing a dress depicting images of Belarusian political prisoners.
After receiving the award, the artist reads out a touching letter to the families of the imprisoned, and then lets out a scream. The artists gathered in the hall join her in screaming. There are tears of emotion and rage on their faces. It was a scream of helplessness, because those imprisoned by Lukashenka’s order have no chance of a fair trial nor of defense.
What would the line of such a defense even look like if their fault was solely that they wanted to live in a free country? Such cheek, though, could not be endured by the Belarusian regime.
I don’t know if the image of Andrzej Poczobut was also featured on Jana Shostak’s dress – there were hundreds of photos. But I believe that the scream was also for him. The scream of the artist that Polish politicians prefer to ignore.
Not much has happened in the Poczobut case. Bartosz Wielinski from Gazeta Wyborcza spoke about it in August last year, when receiving the Freedom of Word Medal of the Grand Press foundation on behalf of Andrzej Poczobut.
“My country is failing Andrzej and his case,” Wieliński did not hide his disappointment and pointed to the need for specific government actions, mainly in the public space. “The quieter it is around Andrzej, the more difficult it becomes to get him out,” he added.
Last December, Poczobut was awarded the title of the Journalist of the Year 2021. This time, Jarosław Kurski, Deputy Editor-in-Chief of Gazeta Wyborcza, received the award on his behalf, saying that it is not for a specific text, but for a heroic attitude: “It is a testimony that freedom of speech has no price and is not negotiable.” The journalistic community tries to remember about the imprisoned colleague. But what is the Polish government doing in this matter?
Four months ago, the PRESS magazine inquired about concrete actions in this matter. The Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs explained that President Andrzej Duda, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, and members of the parliament had called for freedom for Poczobut. After the journalist was arrested almost a year ago, he was also summoned to the Ministry as an urgent charge d’affairs of the Belarusian Embassy in Warsaw.
Apparently, this issue is raised each time at the ever rarer meetings of Polish and Belarusian diplomats. The Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs’s actions also supposedly resulted in condemning the actions of the Belarusian authorities by the European Commission and the US Department of State. There was also a campaign on ministerial profiles in social networks, under the banner of #WolniPolacyNaBialorusi (Free Poles in Belarus). Needless to say, these actions did not bring any effect, and Poczobut still remains in prison on bogus charges.
Can the Polish government do more in the case of Andrzej Poczobut and other representatives of the Polish minority imprisoned by the Belarusian regime? It is difficult to answer this question unequivocally. Polish-Belarusian relations, especially after the recent events on the border, are the worst since 1991, when Belarus declared independence. This limits the possibilities of acting effectively – even for the most skilled diplomats.
In addition, Belarus already faces sanctions – in December 2021, the European Union introduced their fifth package. More people and entities were placed on the sanction lists as a consequence of the repression of journalists. This applies mainly to individuals close to Lukashenka, representatives of the judiciary and the propaganda apparatus, as well as Belarusian companies. Nevertheless, as we can see, this type of pressure does not bring any results.
So what are we left with? Internationalization of the case and constant reminding about the situation of political prisoners in Belarus in every possible body, as well as a thorough information campaign directed at the Polish society about imprisoned representatives of the Polish minority.
As Wielinski said – the quieter around Lukashenka’s prisoners, the more difficult it becomes to get them out. Behind-the-scenes talks on this issue with representatives of the Belarusian regime are also needed. Non-standard actions are also possible.
The obstacles, however, are the overwhelming weakness of Polish foreign policy, Poland’s conflict with the majority of allies who could apply additional pressure on the Belarusian regime, and the completely tarnished opinion of Poland as a country that has problems with respecting the freedom of speech and the fundamental values on which every democratic country is based.
Not so old – and scandalous – opinions about Lukashenka as “such a warm man”, which the former Speaker of the Senate Stanisław Karczewski made, are not enough to appease the satrap and free the Polish journalist and other imprisoned.
Freedom for Andrzej Poczobut should become a priority for the Polish authorities. Since the administration of weaker Ukraine managed to release Nadia Savchenko, a Ukrainian pilot who was kidnapped by separatists and imprisoned by the Russians on the fake charges of murdering Russian reporters, it should also be possible to release a Polish journalist from a Belarusian prison.
In the case of Savchenko, even the Polish Sejm expressed deep concern about the fate and health of the Ukrainian woman in a special resolution and emphasized its deep solidarity with her. Meanwhile, the United States announced that her release was one of the conditions for lifting sanctions against Russia.
When Savchenko was eventually freed in exchange for Russian spies, the President of Ukraine sent a presidential plane to fetch her. You cannot see such determination on the part of the Polish authorities in the Poczobut’s case.
And one more note. When I was in Dnipropetrovsk in eastern Ukraine five years ago, it was impossible not to notice there numerous billboards with the image of the pilot and calls for her release. It was evident that the Ukrainians never forgot about their heroine, thus giving her the necessary strength to survive the difficult period in a Russian prison.
In Poland, no one speaks about Poczobut. There are no billboards, no calls for his release, and nothing is known about any action being taken behind the scenes by Polish diplomacy.
Journalistic prizes awarded by the community in absentia, or the desperate, demonstrative scream of an artist are, unfortunately, not enough. We like to remember the dead, especially during pathetically celebrated anniversaries. And it’s mainly for show. The living, as you can see, must be patient.
The article was originally published in Polish at: https://liberte.pl/minuta-krzyku-dla-poczobuta/
Translated by Olga Łabendowicz