Human rights activists handed prison terms in Belarus

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — A court in Belarus on Wednesday handed prison sentences to two human rights activists, part of an ongoing crackdown on nongovernmental organizations and independent media in the ex-Soviet country.

The court in the eastern city of Homiel sentenced 55-year-old Leanid Sudalenka to three years in prison and gave a 2 1/2-year sentence to 43-year-old Tatsiana Lasitsa on charges of organizing and financing actions violating the public order. Both have been in custody since their arrest more than nine months ago.

Sudalenko has written from prison that the charges hinged on him meeting a colleague released from jail and helping a low-income farmer family to buy firewood — actions that investigators interpreted as organizing and funding protests.

Sudalenka and Lasitsa worked for the Viasna human rights center, the country’s leading rights group. Another five leading members of Viasna, including its head Ales Bialiatski, are in custody awaiting trial.

Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other international rights groups urged Belarusian authorities to immediately annul Wednesday’s sentence and strongly denounced “politically motivated prosecutions of Viasna members and volunteers (that) are part of the ‘purge’ of Belarusian civil society” by President Alexander Lukashenko’s government.

“Belarusian authorities’ targeting of Viasna in particular is no doubt designed to punish the organization for its outstanding and courageous human rights work over the course of 25 years,” they said.

Lukashenko faced months of protests triggered by his re-election to a sixth term in an August 2020 vote that the opposition and the West saw as rigged. He responded to the demonstrations with a massive crackdown that saw more than 35,000 people arrested and thousands beaten by police.

Belarusian authorities have methodically ramped up the pressure against nongovernmental organizations and independent media, conducting hundreds of raids of offices and apartments of activists and journalists, and arresting scores.

On Wednesday, Belarus’ Interior Ministry said that the online resources of Belsat, an independent Belarusian TV channel based in Poland, have been designated as extremist — a decision that follows July’s court ruling which already outlawed the TV channel as extremist. The moves have exposed its employees and viewers to prison terms.

“The authorities are methodically cleansing Belarus’ information space, and the absurdity of the situation is that they assign the extremist designation several times,” said Andrei Bastunets, the head of the Belarusian Association of Journalists. “Officials apply the label of extremism to the media they can’t reach.”

Even before the move, Iryna Slaunikava, a Belsat journalist, was sentenced to 15 days in jail on Monday for reposting Belsat’s content on her Facebook page. Slaunikava’s husband, Ales Loyka was also handed a 15-day sentence for reposting Belsat’s materials dating back several years.

They were arrested on Saturday after returning from a trip to Egypt.

In February, Belsat journalists Daria Chultsova and Katsiaryna Andreyeva were convicted of violating public order and sentenced to two years in prison after they covered a protest.

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Uliana Pavlova in Moscow contributed to this report.

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