Belarus hands 4 independent journalists lengthy prison terms

TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — A Belarusian court on Thursday sentenced four journalists at country's largest independent news agency to lengthy prison terms on charges widely seen as politically motivated.

Four reporters of the BelaPAN news agency were handed prison terms ranging from four to 14 years in prison, and the charges against them included treason and forming an extremist group, according to the Belarusian Association of Journalists.

Belarusian authorities outlawed BelaPAN as extremist in August 2021. The news agency, founded in 1991, extensively covered the months-long protests that erupted in Belarus after election officials handed President Alexander Lukashenko a sixth term after the 2020 presidential election that the West denounced as rigged.

The four journalists stood trial behind closed doors in the Minsk regional court. They have been in custody for over a year.

Andrei Aliaksandrau was sentenced to 14 years, while his wife Iryna Zlobina was handed nine years for collecting donations to help arrested fellow journalists pay their fines. The two were convicted of multiple charges, including violating public order and treason.

Dzmitry Navazhylau was sentenced to six years, and BelaPAN's editor in chief Iryna Leushyna was handed four years on the charge of forming and running an extremist group.

“Huge prison terms in the BelaPAN case were nothing less than revenge to the outlet's staff for their honest work and position,” the Belarusian Association of Journalists said Thursday.

Belaruss authorities cracked down hard on the demonstrations, the largest of which drew up to 200,000 people, arresting and beating thousands of people. More than 35,000 people were detained.

“For the first time, journalists had to work in body armor, because rubber bullets were fired at them and stun grenades were thrown at them,” Leushyna said in her closing statement, released by defense lawyers. “I consider myself innocent and am proud of the fact that for so many years I worked in a such a great team of journalists and was their editor in chief.”

Independent journalists were the first to face the government's crackdown. Many were either arrested by the security service or fled the country. More than 30 reporters are currently behind bars, either awaiting trial or serving their sentences.

“The BelaPAN case is politically motivated, journalists of the outlet absolutely lawfully fulfilled their duties and up until the very moment of their arrest remained an example of the high standard of Belarusian journalism,” the Belarusian Association of Journalists said.

Lukashenko has managed to hold on to power despite Western sanctions, relying on the support of Moscow, Belarus' main ally and sponsor. The Kremlin used Belarusian territory to launch its invasion in February into Ukraine.

However, the sanctions delivered a crippling blow to the Belarusian economy, and inflation rates in the country have spiked.

Lukashenko on Thursday told a government meeting that during the first eight months of this year, inflation rate in Belarus has exceeded 13% and will reach 19% by the end of the year. That is twice as high as last year's inflation rate of 9.97%.

The president scolded the government for the spike in prices and banned raising them effective immediately.

“Forbidden! From today! Not from tomorrow, but from today. So that prices don’t go up overnight,” Lukashenko said. “Prices have hit the ceiling! You can’t raise prices any further.”

The Russian government on Thursday reported allocating a $1.5 billion loan for Belarus. The country will receive another $1.5 billion from the Russian-controlled Eurasian Development Bank.

Yuras Karmanau, The Associated Press