MINSK, Belarus – Freedom could be years away for Aleksandr Sdvizhkov, the Belarusian journalist sentenced to three years of hard labor for republishing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that sparked mass demonstrations and anti-Western violence across the Muslim world.
Sdvizhkov is currently being held with no means of communication at the Belarusian Interior Ministry’s transfer prison in Minsk, said Olexei Korol, co-founder of Zgoda (Consensus) newspaper, which published the cartoons.
“No one is allowed to visit him,” Korol said.
Belarusian strongman President Aleksandr Lukashenko shut down Zgoda in March 2006 after Sdvizhkov decided to re-print the cartoons that portrayed the founder of Islam, including one showing the prophet, with a bomb in his turban.
The 12 cartoons first appeared in the Danish Jyllands-Posten newspaper in 2005 and outraged Muslims who saw them as blasphemous. Last week Danish media republished the controversial images to show solidarity with the cartoonist, a day after police revealed an alleged plot to kill him. Islamic tradition prohibits images of Muhammad and other prophets.
In January a Minsk court sentenced Sdvizhkov to three years of hard labor in a penal colony for his decision to reprint the cartoons. No one knows when the Belarusian Supreme Court will get around to hearing Sdvizhkov’s appeal.
Vitaly Taras, a member of the Union of Belarusian Writers, said in an interview that Sdvizhkov's punishment was excessive. "The case demonstrates to the whole world that European values, including the freedom of speech, have little value in Belarus," Taras said.
The population of Belarus, formerly a Soviet republic, is overwhelmingly Orthodox Christian; only about 3 percent of the 9 million residents are Muslim. Lukashenko's oppressive, Soviet-style government has a history of quashing independent media, and it has close ties to Iran.
"The authorities suddenly became very worried about the feelings of Belarusian Muslims," said Aleksandr Klaskovsky, a Minsk-based independent political analyst with Belarusian News. "Prior to the scandal, Belarusian authorities told everyone who would listen that Belarus was a Slavic, Russian Orthodox country, ignoring the country's true multicultural and religious reality."
Taras said the government's crackdown on Zgoda sent a message to Muslims worldwide: "The Sdvizhkov case in Belarus can only please extremists from Hamas, and other Muslim radicals, who will be happy our authorities turned out to be on their side."
Lukashenko, the nation's president, called the publication of the cartoons "a provocation against the state," and in 2006 the Belarusian General Prosecutor’s Office opened a criminal investigation into the paper's decision to re-publish the cartoons.
Sdvizhkov, who is a member of the Russian Orthodox Church, fled the country and wound up in a Russian Monastery while in exile and spent his time writing an erotic novel.
“It’s a terrific piece of work,” said Aleksandr Abramovich, Sdvizhkov’s lifelong friend and contributing editor to the Borisov News. He reviewed the manuscript when Sdvizhkov made a secret trip in July 2007 to his hometown of Borisov, a small city 31 miles northeast of Minsk.
On Nov. 18, 2007, Belarusian Secret Service agents arrested Sdvizhkov in Borisov on charges of inciting religious hatred. The 49-year-old journalist had re-entered the country and traveled there to mark the 10th anniversary of his father’s death.
“His neighbors turned him in,” said Abramovich.
According to his close friends and colleagues, he's now getting little support from groups willing to work for his release.
The Belarusian Association of Journalists, a non-governmental organization founded in 1995 to defend the rights of Belarusian journalists, discussed how best to assist their colleague.
The group's deputy director, Andrey Bastunets said they had asked lawyer Maya Aleksandrovna to help Sdvizhkov appeal his sentence.
Aleksandrovna said she last met with Sdvizhkov on Jan. 29 to help prepare his appeal.
“I haven’t seen him since,” Aleksandrovna said, adding that prison authorities would allow her to see Sdvizhkov in person only after she was formally contracted to represent him. “That hasn’t happened yet,” she said.
Appeals to the government from the Moscow-based Russian Orthodox Church to intercede on Sdvizhkov's behalf have also been ignored.
A clerk at the Belarusian Supreme Court said that no date has been set to hear Sdvizhkov’s appeal.