KIEV, Ukraine (AP) – A court in Belarus sent two female reporters to prison on Thursday accused of violating public order after covering a protest against the country’s authoritarian president.
The court in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, decreed two-year prison sentences for Katsiaryna Bakhvalava, 27, who goes by the name Andreyeva, and for Daria Chultsova, 23, from the Polish-funded television station Belsat TV. They were arrested in November when the police broke down the door of an apartment in Minsk from which a demonstration was broadcast live, and were charged with “organizing actions that violate public order”, charges they deny.
Addressing the court before the ruling, Bakhvalava vowed to continue working to « build a Belarus that is free from political repression. »
« I am not asking, I am demanding acquittal for myself and my colleagues, » he added, referring to the other detained Belarusian reporters.
In the past six months, more than 400 journalists were arrested across the country. At least 10 have faced criminal charges and remain in detention.
« We consider that the sentence is politically motivated, its objective is to scare all reporters to prevent them from fulfilling their professional work of covering important events for society in the country, » said the Belarusian Press Association. « This amounts to a professional veto. »
The United States embassy in the country has called for the release of the reporters and urged authorities to stop prosecuting journalists for doing their job.
Belarus has been rocked by protests following the official results of the August 9 presidential elections that granted President Alexander Lukashenko reelection for a sixth term by a large majority. The opposition and some electoral workers have denounced that the elections were rigged.
The authorities responded with a violent crackdown on the demonstrations, the largest of which attracted up to 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.