Serbian court rules to extradite to Belarus a critic of its authoritarian regime

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — A Serbian court has ruled to extradite a Belarusian filmmaker and pro-democracy political activist to the authoritarian government in Minsk where he could face prison and torture, his lawyers and supporters said Friday. He is wanted in Belarus for alleged tax evasion.

“Today, the lawyers of movie director Andrei Hniot received the decision of the Higher Court in Belgrade on Andrei's possible extradition to Belarus," said a statement from exiled Belarusian opposition leader and former presidential candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. “If extradited for criminal prosecution, Andrei will inevitably face a severe prison term for his peaceful civil activism and exercising his rights.”

He has the right to appeal.

“We have been in touch with diplomatic representatives of EU countries, lawyers, human rights defenders, attorneys, and journalists to ensure his release,” the statement said.

Hniot was arrested last year on Oct. 30 at Belgrade airport based on an Interpol warrant issued at the request of the Belarusian authorities for alleged tax evasion. Since then, he has been held in detention at Belgrade Central Prison.

An appeals court in early March overturned a decision by the Higher Court in Belgrade, which had ruled that the legal prerequisites for his extradition to Belarus had been met. But the appeals court returned the case to the Higher Court for reconsideration, saying there had been violations of procedures.

Hniot left Belarus in 2020 after criticizing the staunchly pro-Russian regime of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko and participating in protests following that year’s disputed presidential elections.

Hniot said at one of the court hearings that Lukshenko’s regime wants to punish him for his activism. “We openly opposed the dictatorship, human rights violations, and electoral fraud in Belarus in 2020,” he said.

On the eve of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Serbian independent media reported that Serbia’s secret service wiretapped a Belgrade meeting held by members of the Russian opposition and handed them over to the authorities in Moscow. Shortly afterwards, most of those who attended the meeting in Belgrade were arrested in Russia and later convicted to lengthy prison terms.

Serbia, which formally seeks European Union membership, has been drifting away from its EU path and toward traditional Slavic ally Russia, as well as China.