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Four Belarusian women who criticised government get long jail terms at closed trials

By:
Reuters
Updated: Mar 17, 2023, 15:05 GMT+00:00

(Reuters) - Two women who ran an independent online media outlet that was critical of the Belarus authorities were each sentenced on Friday to 12 years in prison, the prosecutor's office said.

Zolotova, editor-in-chief of Tut.by independent news website speaks to media after court hearing in 2019

(Reuters) -Four Belarusian women were each jailed for more than a decade on Friday, the latest in a series of heavy sentences handed to activists and journalists, including a Nobel prize winner, who have spoken out against authoritarian president Alexander Lukashenko.

The verdicts were handed down in two separate cases – the first against the leaders of an independent online news outlet, tut.by, and the second against two political scientists accused of subversion.

In the first, Marina Zolotova, editor of tut.by, and Lyudmila Chekina, its general director, were both sentenced to 12 years, the state prosecutor’s office said.

The women were arrested in May 2021 with other employees, most of whom were later released. Three others are on a wanted list.

Zolotova and Chekina were initially charged with tax evasion, and later with inciting hatred and calling for sanctions against Belarus. The state news agency posted video of them sitting in a courtroom cage in handcuffs at a closed trial.

“It’s another attempt to kill honest journalism in Belarus, but I know that the truth will win,” exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, whose husband is also in prison, said on Twitter.

She also condemned the jailing of Valeria Kasciuhova, founder of a think-tank, and Tatsiana Kuzina, also a political scientist, who received 10-year sentences according to the human rights group Viasna, which is banned in Belarus.

Viasna said the two women had been convicted of “assisting actions to seize power in an unconstitutional manner”, calling for actions aimed at harming national security, and inciting social hatred.

Ban for ‘extremism’

Tut.by actively reported on mass protests against Lukashenko in 2020 and was banned as an “extremist organisation”. Many of its staff left the country, creating a new outlet called Zerkalo (Mirror).

In a message of support to Zolotova and Chekina, they tweeted: “We love you and we wait for you in freedom – freedom that was taken away from you, paradoxically, because you strove to prevent it from being taken away from Belarusians.”

According to human rights activists, Belarus now has about 1,500 political detainees, arrested for criticising the authorities or participating in the 2020 protests against the outcome of a presidential election that the opposition said was rigged.

Rights activist Ales Bialiatski, co-winner of last year’s Nobel Peace Prize, was sentenced to 10 years in prison this month after being found guilty of financing protests, in a trial condemned by the United States and the European Union as a sham.

Three other men convicted in the same case – Valentin Stefanovich, Vladimir Labkovich and Dmitry Solovyov – were sentenced to nine, seven and eight years respectively.

(Reporting by Reuters; writing by Mark Trevelyan; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

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