Belarus court sentences two journalists to two years in prison

Minsk (AFP) –


A court in Belarus on Thursday sentenced two journalists to two years in prison on charges of fomenting protests against strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko.

Authorities in the ex-Soviet country are pursuing a number of criminal cases against activists and journalists in the wake of months of anti-government protests last year.

The demonstrations swept Belarus after Lukashenko claimed a landslide victory in an August election that the opposition and many Western countries said was fraudulent.

In response, the authorities unleashed a mass crackdown, which left at least four protesters dead, thousands in jail and hundreds claiming torture in custody.

Poland-based opposition television station Belsat reported Thursday that the two journalists, Katerina Bakhvalova, 27, and Daria Chultsova, 23, were sentenced for leading "group actions that grossly violate public order" while filming a November rally in support of a dead anti-government protester.

Both women, who were photographed Thursday smiling and flashing the V for victory sign from inside a cage for defendants, had been held in pre-trial custody since.

"I showed these events live. For this I was thrown into jail on trumped-up charges," Belsat reported Bakhvalova as telling a judge Wednesday in her final statement before sentencing.

As the journalists were handed their verdict Thursday morning, the prosecutor general's office said in a statement it had opened a criminal case into the death of the protester.

- Growing crackdown -

The protester, 31-year-old former soldier Roman Bondarenko, died from brain damage in Minsk after police arrested him following a dispute in a city square that was a regular meeting place for the opposition.

The opposition believes Bondarenko suffered the injuries at the hands of Lukashenko's security services.

Lukashenko has weathered the opposition protests and last week gathered loyalists for a defiant address, claiming his country had defeated a foreign intervention.

The European Union has slapped sanctions on the strongman leader and his allies, and the case of the two journalists drew sharp condemnation from diplomats in Western countries, who demanded that the women be released.

The verdict in their trial came after police earlier this week said they raided around 90 homes and offices of journalists, rights defenders and trade union members.

It also came a day after a trial began in the case of leading opposition member Viktor Babaryko, who was arrested in June ahead of the presidential election after he announced he would run against Lukashenko.

The former banker was one of several opposition figures who were arrested or fled the former Soviet country ahead of last year's election.