Belarus reporters deny charges in 'absurd' protest trial

Minsk (AFP) –


Two Belarusian journalists denied on Tuesday organising protests against strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko on the opening day of their trial in Minsk.

Mass protests swept Belarus last year after Lukashenko claimed a sixth term in office in August, following an election that the opposition and the West said was rigged.

The government cracked down on the demonstrations, leaving at least four protesters dead and thousands in jail -- hundreds claiming to have been tortured in custody.

On November 15, journalists for Poland-based opposition television channel Belsat Katerina Bakhvalova, 27, and Daria Chultsova, 23, were detained while covering a rally in support of a killed protester.

After spending seven days in jail on charges of participating in an unauthorised demonstration, the two were charged with "organising and preparing protests that grossly violate the public order".

The charges carry a maximum penalty of three years in prison.

In court on Tuesday a prosecutor said the women -- who flashed V for victory signs with their hands in a cage for defendants -- were accused of "attracting people to participate in a mass event" via their broadcast.

Both journalists told the judge they were not guilty.

A lawyer for Bakhvalova asked the judge to release the two defendants and instead restrict them from leaving the country, a request the judge refused.

The Committee to Protect Journalists and the US embassy in Belarus on the eve of the trial demanded the journalists be released, describing the charges as "absurd" and "outrageous".

Exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya said the "honest journalists" were being tried for showing "the world the regime's weakness and cowardice".

In its crackdown on the protests, Belarus also came down hard on independent media.

According to the Belarus Association of Journalists (BAJ), media workers were detained 477 times in the country in 2020.