Belarus jails senior staff at independent news site in crackdown on Lukashenko critics
Belarus has handed long jail terms to senior staff at the country’s largest independent news site, which was forced to close after historic demonstrations against strongman Alexander Lukashenko over two years ago.
The verdicts are the latest in a crackdown on journalists, opposition figures and activists who challenged Lukashenko’s claim that he won a sixth presidential term in 2020.
A court in Minsk on Friday sentenced the editor-in-chief of the Tut.by portal, Marina Zolotova, 45, and general director Lyudmila Chekina, 54, to 12 years each behind bars.
The women faced a raft of charges including tax evasion – which critics say is regularly used as a pretext to silence dissent – and “incitement to hatred”.
Exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who Lukashenko critics say won the presidential election, condemned the long jail terms.
“The verdict for Marina Zolotova and Lyudmila Chekina is another attempt by the regime to kill honest journalism in Belarus,” she said.
Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) called for the women to be released.
“RSF is outraged by this iniquitous sentence, which is Lukashenko’s revenge against those who inform the population,” the Paris-based campaign group said.
The Belarusian Association of Journalists condemned the verdict as “cruel revenge for the truth”.
The proceedings are linked to massive rallies that broke out against Lukashenko after the August 2020 vote and the brutal crackdown he instigated against critics of his nearly 30-year rule.
Belarus also jailed two other perceived government critics on Friday. Political analyst and website editor Valeria Kostyugova was handed 10 years in prison while Tatyana Kuzina, who founded a school of public administration, was also handed a 10-year jail term.
Both were accused of inciting hatred, undermining national security and supporting acts to topple the government.
Earlier this month, Belarus handed a 10-year prison term to Nobel prize winner and rights activist Ales Bialiatski, drawing international outrage.
The latest sentences came as United Nations rights experts accused Belarus of systemic abuses, including the repression of protesters and dissidents, that could amount to crimes against humanity.
The paper issued by the UN high commissioner for human rights on Friday covered the run-up to the disputed presidential election in August 2020 and a crackdown on demonstrators and critics in the months that followed.
“There are sufficient grounds to believe that systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been and are being committed in Belarus,” the report said. “Some of the violations may also amount to crimes against humanity.”
Violations included the security services’ “widespread unnecessary and disproportionate use of force”, the paper said.
Belarus’ permanent mission to the UN in Geneva dismissed the report, calling it “a lobbying tool for western countries’ anti-Belarusian agenda at the United Nations and the Human Rights Council”.
Thousands of people were detained during the anti-Lukashenko rallies, hundreds claimed mistreatment in detention and nearly all opposition figures have since been exiled or jailed.
The crackdown also expanded to journalists. In the push against opposition voices, Tut.by’s offices were raided and the media group was declared an “extremist organisation” in 2022 and shuttered.
Zolotova and Chekina were both detained in May 2021 alongside a dozen colleagues. Their homes were raided as well.
Some of Tut.by’s staff fled the country fearing reprisals – including to Ukraine – and restarted operations under the name Zerkalo (“mirror” in Russian).
The media outlet’s staff abroad have not revealed their identities for fear of bringing family members still in Belarus to the attention of law enforcement.
“Mila, Marina, we are proud of you. Your integrity and resilience are an example to us all,” Zerkalo staff said ahead of the verdict.
“We will continue your work – telling Belarusian people the real news, no matter what.”
Agence France-Press and Reuters contributed to this article