A Belarusian court on Thursday sentenced two female journalists to two years in prison on charges of violating public order after they covered a protest against the nation’s controversial president.
The European Union has condemned the incarcerations as “unacceptable harassment” and called on the Belarusian authorities to “cease their violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms”.
The court in the Belarusian capital Minsk sentenced Katsiaryna Andreyeva and Daria Chultsova, journalists from the independent media outlet Belsat TV, to two years in prison.
They were arrested on 15 November in a Minsk apartment from which they had filmed live the violent dispersal of a demonstration in honor of an opposition activist, Roman Bondarenko, who had died a few days earlier in police custody after being arrested.
Both were accused of “organizing actions that grossly violated public order,” accusations they have denied.
From the defendants’ cage, they made V-signs with their fingers during the trial, a symbol of victory and a rally sign for critics of Lukashenko’s authoritarian regime.
The US Embassy in Belarus has called for their release and urges the Belarusian authorities to stop prosecuting journalists for doing their jobs.
Josep Borrell, the EU’s head of Foreign Affairs, said in a statement that “such verdicts are aimed at intimidating and silencing journalists and media workers, who are simply doing their job, as well as preventing factual information from reaching the Belarusian people and beyond. “
“The EU urges the Belarusian authorities to end their violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of the press, and abuse of the rule of law. Rather than intensify the use of violence, the authorities Belarusians must respect the wishes of their citizens and engage in an inclusive national dialogue, “he added.
Belarus has been rocked by protests after the official results of the August 9 presidential election gave President Alexander Lukashenko an overwhelming sixth term in office. The opposition and some poll workers have said the election was rigged.
The authorities of the Eastern European nation have responded with a massive crackdown on the demonstrations, the largest of which drew 200,000 people. According to human rights defenders, more than 30,000 people have been detained since the protests began and thousands were brutally beaten.
The United States and the European Union have responded to the Belarusian elections and the crackdown by introducing sanctions against Belarusian officials.
Responding to the court ruling in a series of tweets, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Lukashenko’s opponent in the presidential elections and who has positioned herself as the leader of the opposition from exile in Lithuania, praised the journalists.
In one post, Tsikhanouskaya tweeted: “Just look at Darya and Katsiaryna – strong, smiling and saying goodbye to their loved ones through the bars. Lukashenka can’t break us.”
In another, he said: “Tell your friends about what is happening in Belarus. Tell your colleagues, post on social media. The world must see this anarchy and Lukashenka’s state terror.
“Journalists, politicians, activists, students, doctors, jailed peaceful protesters, even children.”
In addition to Andreyeva and Chultsova, there are 11 journalists currently in prison, prosecuted in connection with various investigations related to the protest, according to the Belarusian Association of Journalists.
The trial of Katerina Borisevich, a journalist with the online news portal Tut.by, and Dr. Artiom Sorokin will begin on Friday.
Detained for three months, they are accused of having “disclosed medical secrets” by publishing a document showing that the 31-year-old painter Roman Bondarenko was sober at the time of his death, contrary to what the authorities claim.
Bondarenko was attacked in a Minsk courtyard on 11 November by what are believed to be plainclothes police officers. He reportedly hit his head on the ground before being detained by the police. He was later found by his family in a city hospital in a coma, where he died the next day.
Borisevich and Sorokin face three years in prison.
A series of 90 raids this week targeted another 20 journalists, community activists and union leaders as part of an investigation into the financing and organizing of the 2020 protests.
According to the authorities, the targets of the raids “not only supported” the demonstrations but also “acted as foreign agents, organizing and financing demonstrations under the guise of human rights activities.”
This repression, which has been going on for months, has been denounced by Western countries, with the EU and the United States adopting sanctions against people close to the Belarusian president.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism