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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Shaun Walker in Warsaw

Serbian court approves extradition of anti-Lukashenko activist to Belarus

Andrei Gnyot gives a V for victory sign with one hand as he holds papers in the other
Andrei Gnyot pictured with papers filed as part of his appeal hearing. Photograph: andrewgnyot/Instagram

A court in Serbia has ruled that a Belarusian activist who was instrumental in organising an alliance of athletes in opposition to the country’s dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, can be extradited to Belarus.

Rights advocates and exiled Belarusian political leaders said the ruling would inevitably lead to a phoney trial and long jail sentence for Andrei Gnyot, who was arrested on an Interpol warrant issued after a request from Minsk.

“By extraditing me, the Serbian court is sending me to a painful death. And the life of my family, relatives and friends may turn into endless grief,” said Gnyot, in a telephone interview from Belgrade, where he is under house arrest after spending several months in jail.

Since crushing a massive protest movement against his rule in 2020, Lukashenko’s regime has cracked down further on any kind of dissent, launching numerous show trials of journalists and activists. Torture and mistreatment are rife in Belarusian jails.

Gnyot, 41, is a director of advertising videos, and his work as an opposition activist has not previously been public. But three Belarusian athletes confirmed his role in setting up a network of sportspeople against Lukashenko in 2020. The network, known as SOS BY, issued letters signed by athletes who opposed Lukashenko, and put pressure on international sporting bodies to boycott the Belarusian regime.

Yelena Leuchanka, a basketball player who previously played for the national team, and who is a friend of Gnyot, said: “We had over 2,000 athletes and people related to sport sign our letter. He was really supportive when it came to helping with the message and creating videos.” She said the opposition from athletes was particularly irritating for Lukashenko, who liked to see himself as the patron of sport.

Aliaksandra Herasimenia, a swimmer who won two Olympic silver medals in London in 2012, said Gnyot helped her record video messages in 2020. “Andrei played a big role. A lot of sportspeople didn’t understand how to organise or make videos, and he helped us a lot.” She was later accused of “damaging the image of Belarus” and sentenced in absentia to 12 years in prison. She lives in exile.

Gnyot said: “If Herasimenia, a member of our association, was sentenced to 12 years in prison, I can expect 20 or 25 years for myself, or even more.” Belarus is the only European country to retain the death penalty.

Gnyot left Belarus in 2021 and made a new home in Thailand, but frequently travelled to shoot commercials. He said he was in Serbia last August to shoot an advert for the French food company Danone and had not encountered any problems. He arrived again in late October on a commission to shoot an advertisement for the communications company Tele2. This time he was arrested at the airport and taken to an initial court hearing, where he was told there was an Interpol warrant in his name for financial crimes.

“I tried to explain that the economic charges are just a smokescreen to allow Interpol to issue a warrant, because they are not allowed to issue them on political charges.” Gnyot said the judge appeared to know little about the political situation in Belarus, asking at one point if it was part of the EU, and ordered him to be held in Belgrade’s huge central prison while deliberations continued for several months.

Gynot has been released but is only allowed to leave his apartment for one hour a day and must wear a tracking ankle bracelet.

Serbia, under the authoritarian leader Aleksandar Vučić, has attempted to perform a geopolitical balancing act, keen to eventually join the EU but also retaining friendly relations with Russia and Belarus, even after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

Pavel Latushka, a Belarusian political leader in exile, said he was worried about Serbia’s friendly relations with Minsk and that his team was engaged in lobbying Belgrade and other capitals to raise awareness of the case. “We are working actively on this,” he said.

As well as his work for SOS BY, Gnyot shot footage from protests and shared it with independent media outlets in Belarus and abroad, work confirmed by letters he has provided to the Serbian court to prove his work as a journalist.

The Committee to Protect Journalists has endorsed Gnyot’s status as a journalist, and this week called on Serbian authorities to release him. Belarus should also cease “attempts to instrumentalise Interpol to transnationally repress dissenting voices”, Carlos Martínez de la Serna, the CPJ’s programme director, said in a statement.

In the past, Belarusian authorities have gone to great lengths to gain access to those they want to prosecute. In 2021, the country’s air force ordered a Ryanair plane travelling from Athens to Vilnius to land in Belarus when it briefly crossed the country’s airspace, in order to arrest the opposition blogger Roman Protasevich, who was onboard.

Gnyot is appealing against the decision to Serbia’s high court. If that is unsuccessful, the final decision on whether to extradite him will rest with Serbia’s justice minister.

Katsiaryna Snytsina, a Belarusian basketball player who was part of SOS BY, said Gnyot had been involved in the movement of dissident athletes “from the beginning” and called on Serbia to release him.

“This is a clear political case, and he really cannot be sent back. If he does, he’ll suffer in jail, the same as thousands of other people in Belarus,” she said.

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