Two Belarusian journalists were sentenced Thursday (18) to two years in prison for filming, in November last year, a violent crackdown on a demonstration against the dictatorship of Aleksandr Lukashenko.
Reporters Daria Tchoultsova, 23, and Katerina Bakhvalova, 27, were arrested while covering live for Belsat TV, a protest that took to the streets of Minsk after the death of a 31-year-old painter, Roman Bandarenko.
Bandarenko was arrested by Lukachenko’s shock troops for trying to prevent them from tearing off white and red ribbons tied in the courtyard of his apartment building – a sign of protest against the dictatorship. Videos posted that night on social media showed the painter being beaten by plainclothes officers and taken in an unmarked van to the police station.
Two hours later he was transferred to a hospital in Minsk, with a head trauma, went into a coma and died shortly after, according to Belarusian media. To arrest the journalists on the day of the demonstration, the police broke down the door of the apartment in which they recorded the footage.
The prosecution accused the journalists of having “incited the population to express themselves illegally through their reports, which seriously undermined public order” – in Belarus, demonstrations are prohibited without the authorization of the regime and journalists have been arrested for covering them, even though they work, identify and accredit.
This is the first time that journalists have been convicted of criminal charges since the start of the daily protests against Lukashenko on August 9, 2020, but more than 400 have already been detained, many of whom have been administratively sentenced to detention terms of up to ‘to 25 days. Eleven are in prison awaiting trial.
Journalists and human rights activists have become the main targets of Lukashenko’s crackdown in recent months. Dozens of independent websites were shut down and the regime raided several offices on Tuesday, including the Belarusian Association of Journalists.
The government said the entities are accused of “supporting protests and acting as foreign agents, organizing and funding protests under the guise of human rights activities.”
On Wednesday (17), the trial of former banker Viktor Babariko, the most promising opposition candidate to Lukachenko in last year’s presidential election, began in Minsk before being arrested by the dictatorship . Babariko faces up to 15 years in prison for money laundering and corruption.
Maria Kalesnikava, Babariko’s former campaign leader and opposition campaign leader alongside Svetlana Tikhanovskaia, has been in prison since September, when she thwarted a secret police attempt to forcibly expel her from the country.