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Belarus court rules against AP reporter for Chernobyl story

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MOSCOW (AP) — A court in the former Soviet republic of Belarus has ruled against an Associated Press correspondent in a lawsuit by a dairy company that claimed an AP article damaged its reputation. AP said it stands by his reporting and will seek to overturn the ruling on appeal.

The lawsuit stems from an April article about farmers using land contaminated by fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The article said tests by a Belarusian state laboratory on a sample of milk from a dairy farm showed 10 times the accepted level of a radioactive isotope.

Milkavita, the company that the dairy farm supplies, sued Minsk-based Yuras Karmanau, who wrote the article, saying he had damaged its reputation. The company makes cheese, primarily for export to Russia.

Judge Tatyana Sapega ruled in Milkavita's favor Thursday and ordered Karmanau to pay court costs and to tell AP about the ruling. She accepted the testimony of a laboratory representative who confirmed the test results but said Karmanau did not have specialist scientific knowledge needed to interpret them.

Ian Phillips, AP's vice president for international news, said the AP stands by Karmanau's reporting.

"The AP strongly disagrees with the court's decision and unreservedly stands behind journalist Yuras Karmanau," Phillips said in a statement. "Mr. Karmanau's reporting is a fair and accurate account of the lingering effects of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster on Belarus 30 years after the accident. The court's refusal to consider key evidence in support of Mr. Karmanau raises serious concerns, and AP looks forward to vindication on appeal."

The independent Belarusian Association of Journalists expressed concern.

"The verdict in this trial substantially pushes the boundaries of freedom of speech in this country since it puts into jeopardy the very possibility of conducting important journalistic investigations in Belarus," the group said in a statement.

During the trial, which began in October, Sapega turned down Karmanau's key motions. He was not allowed to introduce as evidence the results from the laboratory test, or evidence showing how the milk sample was collected and tested. He also was not allowed to call some witnesses including an engineer from the dairy company and a scholar quoted in the article.

Karmanau's lawyers also argued that Article 52 of Belarus' media law holds that a journalist cannot be held responsible for publishing findings or information provided by a government agency, which the laboratory is. The judge did not address that argument in her ruling.

Chernobyl, a nuclear power plant in Ukraine near the Belarusian border, suffered an explosion in 1986 often described as the world's worst nuclear accident. The fallout contaminated a large swath of northern Ukraine and southeastern Belarus.

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