By PATRICK REEVELL, ABC News
(NEW YORK) — A court in Belarus has sentenced two journalists to two years in prison for live-streaming one of the pro-democracy protests that rocked the country last year as authorities continue a crackdown aimed at smashing the protest movement against authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko.
Katsiaryna Andreyeva, 27, and Darya Chultsova, 23, were detained in an apartment in Belarus’ capital of Minsk in November from where they were filming a protest over the death of a protester killed several days earlier.
Prosecutors charged the journalists who work for the independent channel Belsat with organizing the protest by streaming it.
Both journalists pleaded not guilty and said they had simply been doing their job by filming the event but the court on Wednesday convicted them and sentenced them to two years in a prison camp.
Their case has attracted international attention amid the ongoing repression in Belarus where Lukashenko’s government, having weathered the massive protests last autumn demanding he leave office, is now seeking to smother the opposition to him.
There are more than 250 political prisoners in Belarus currently according to human rights monitors and police this week launched new raids targeting the homes of journalists, activists and trade union groups, including the home of the head of the Belarusian Association of Journalists.
After Wednesday’s verdict Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the exiled leader of Belarus’ opposition, on Wednesday tweeted: “Just look at Darya and Katsyaryna — strong, smiling, and saying goodbye to their loved ones from behind bars. Lukashenka can’t break us.”
The international press freedom group, Reporters Without Borders, condemned the journalists’ imprisonment, writing on Twitter that the two women had been jailed for “doing their job” and demanding their immediate release.
Poland’s representative to the European Union called for Belarus to end its persecution of journalists. Lithuania, where Tikhanovskaya is now based, said Andreyeva and Chultsova’s jailing was “unacceptable,” urging Belarus’ government to stop a “cycle of repression” and to release all unjustly detained prisoners.
Jeanne Cavelier, head of Reporters Without Borders’ Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk, in January said Andreyeva and Chultsova’s case was part of stepped up repression specifically targeting journalists.
“The Belarusian authorities are pursuing a new tactic in which they permanently lock up journalists to prevent them from covering the protests, which have continued for more than five months despite the crackdown,” Cavelier said in a statement in January.
“The ridiculously thin veneer of legality surrounding these criminal proceedings fails to conceal the reality, which is that Alexander Lukashenko is waging a terrible war against the media and free speech,” she said.
There are currently at least 15 serious cases of journalists arbitrarily detained in Belarus, according to Reporters Without Borders.
Belarus’ authorities have repeatedly targeted journalists during the protests that began last August following a disputed presidential election and that saw hundreds of thousands of people demonstrate for an end to Lukashenko’s 26-year rule.
Authorities shut down the internet for days at a time and during the protests police frequently detained and attacked journalists clearly identified as press, hitting some with batons and firing rubber bullets at them. Authorities barred most foreign media from entering the country.
“Every time, going out to work, I risked my health and life. I managed to escape from the barrages of rubber bullets, explosions from stun grenades, the blows of batons. My colleagues were far less lucky,” Andreyeva said in a statement on Tuesday.
“I have everything: youth, a beloved profession, fame, and most of all a clean conscience. I want to dedicate my strengths to the creation, to the construction of a Belarus where there won’t be political repression,” she said, adding she demanded acquittal for herself and hundreds of other political prisoners.
Lukashenko’s hold on power appeared to wobble in the first weeks of the protests last summer but he has since regained control, wearing down the protest movement with steady repression.
Police have detained more than 35,000 people during the protests since August and often used brutal violence to disperse the crowds.
Virtually all opposition leaders have been arrested or forced into exile and those taking part in the protests have been threatened with being fired from their jobs or expelled from universities.
Hanna Liubakova, a prominent journalist in Minsk and non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council tweeted condemning Chultsova and Andreyeva’s jailing and urged Western countries to react.
“If no response from the West follows, there will be more,” Liubakova wrote.
The U.S. embassy in Minsk this month called for Chultsova and Andreyeva’s release.
“These two journalists were covering developing news for the Belarusian people. The United States urges the Belarusian authorities to release them immediately and without conditions and, more broadly, to end the prosecution of journalists doing their jobs,” the embassy wrote in a statement.
The United States has previously condemned the crackdown and imposed sanctions on Belarusian officials accused of rigging August’s election and the violence against protesters.
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