A journalist for one of Poland's leading newspapers has been convicted of libel for insulting Belarus' authoritarian president, but freed after being handed a suspended sentence.
The case of Andrzej Poczobut had drawn wide attention to the repressive regime of Alexander Lukashenko, especially from Poland. Belarus has a large ethnic Polish community.
Belarus' laws don't ban criticism of the government, but Poczobut, a correspondent for Poland's Gazeta Wyborcza in the city of Grodno near the Polish border, was arrested in April on charges of libel and insulting Lukashenko in his articles.
In a closed trial in Grodno, the court on Tuesday convicted him and gave him a three-year suspended sentence. "It was only thanks to our solidarity that I have been released," Poczobut told supporters who had gathered outside the cordoned-off courthouse. He is an ethnic Pole with Belarusian citizenship and a leader of the Polish community in Belarus.
Several dozen of Poczobut's supporters gathered on the street, chanting "Freedom!" as he was led into the court building. The journalist's wife and mother and representatives of the Polish consulate were denied entry to the courtroom.
His lawyer, Vladimir Kiselevich, said that Poczobut was treated roughly Tuesday by prison guards who were escorting him to the courtroom prior to the verdict. "They twisted his handcuffed hands, bent him down and beat his head against the wall," he said.
Media activists saw the trial as a government attempt to scare the independent media.
"The Soviet nightmare is back in Belarus _ a journalist is punished for criticizing authorities, which is absurd," said Zhanna Litvina, the head of the independent Belarusian Journalist Association.
Politicians and commentators in Poland expressed satisfaction that Poczobut was freed from custody but said that his conviction underlined the lack of basic freedoms in Belarus.
"The good news is that, although convicted and sentenced, Mr. Poczobut is not going to be sent to a (labor) camp. But it is also a fact that he has been sentenced for expressing his views, which clearly shows that Belarus is not a democratic state," said Ireneusz Kaminski, a human rights expert for the Helsinki Foundation in Warsaw.
He said that a suspended sentence for Poczobut appeared to be the result of pressure from Poland, the European Union officials and rights activists.
Poczobut's wife Oksana told Polish TVN24 television that she was not expecting her husband to walk free. "I was not expecting such a verdict. I was prepared for a three year term without suspension," Oksana Poczobut said.
She said that Poczobut will not end his criticism of Lukashenko's government, but voiced hope that things might change in Belarus by the time his case comes for review in two years.
Tadeusz Iwinski, deputy head of Polish parliament's commission for foreign affairs, sounded a similar note.
"I greet this verdict with satisfaction because we could have expected a verdict that was not suspended," said left-wing Tadeusz Iwinski, deputy head of Polish parliament's commission for foreign affairs. "This means the case will be reviewed in two year's time, but by that time situation in Belarus may be quite different."
Lukashenko has ruled the nation and its 10 million people for nearly 17 years, earning the nickname of "Europe's last dictator" in the West.
The U.S. and the European Union have introduced new sanctions against Belarus after Lukashenko unleashed a violent crackdown on opposition after December's residential vote that was also criticized by international observers.
Monika Scislowska contributed to this report from Warsaw, Poland.
(This version CORRECTS Corrects "slander" to "libel." Adds quotes, context, photos, byline.)