Two Belarusian journalists were jailed for two years on Thursday after filming a protest against strongman president Alexander Lukashenko.
The court in Minsk ruled reporter Katsyaryna Andreyeva and camerawoman Darya Chultsova, who work for Poland-based opposition channel Belsat TV, were guilty of “organisation and preparation of actions that grossly violate public order” during a rally in November. The demonstration was broken up by security forces.
The journalists denied claims they had “co-ordinated protesters and called for further actions” during the rally, held in memorial for an art teacher, Roman Bondarenko, who died a few days earlier after being beaten by unidentified men believed to be plainclothes security officers.
As evidence, prosecutors introduced the journalists’ flash drives, phones, camera, tripod, and press jackets.
“Every time I went to work, I wasn’t just risking my freedom, but my health and my life. For my family it meant I might not come home one day. But I still went to the thick of events to show them to viewers without any obstacles,” Andreyeva, 27, said in closing arguments on Wednesday, according to Belsat. “I have my youth, a job I love, success, recognition and — most importantly — a clean conscience.”
The three-day trial indicates Lukashenko’s determination to crush the protest movement against his heavily disputed victory in last August’s presidential election, say critics.
The Belarusian Association of Journalists said in a statement that the verdict aimed “to intimidate all media workers so they stop doing their job of reporting on socially important events in the country, which in fact means a ban on the profession”.
Last week, Lukashenko, who has been in power for 26 years, told an audience of supporters that he had defeated “a mutiny based on the blitzkrieg principle” after a six-month confrontation. Since the protests broke out, his security services have jailed Belarus’ opposition leaders or driven them abroad, detained more than 30,000 protesters and allegedly tortured many of those in custody.
Though no charges were filed over Bondarenko’s death for three months, journalist Ekaterina Borisevich and Artyom Sorokin, a doctor, will face trial on Friday for violating doctor-patient confidentiality in a report on the events. Though Lukashenko said Bondarenko had been detained because he was drunk, Borisevich published medical records on independent site Tut.By showing his blood-alcohol content was zero.
Belarus’s KGB — largely unchanged since its Soviet days — has expanded the government crackdown in recent days following a national assembly aimed at reasserting Lukashenko’s control over the country.
Security services raided the homes and offices of about 40 journalists and activists on Tuesday, according to the human rights group Viasna, which was itself targeted. More than 400 reporters have been detained since the protests started, according to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
Former banker Viktor Babariko, the most popular of Lukashenko’s challengers before his arrest last June, went on trial this week on corruption charges that could see him spend up to 15 years in prison.
Maria Kalesnikava and Maxim Znak, two other leading figures from last year’s protests who are both in jail, were last week told they were facing new charges that could see them remain in prison for up to 12 years.