Last week journalist Irina Khalip was given a two-year suspended sentence for "organising and participating" in the December protests against the re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko, while her husband, opposition candidate Andrei Sannikov, was sentenced to five years for his part in the election protests, report Index on Censorship, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and other IFEX members. While Lukashenko ramps up his attack on pro-democracy forces, the U.S. and EU have joined IFEX members in calling for the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners.
A court in Belarus gave Khalip the two-year suspended sentence on 16 May for "organising and participating in mass disorder." CPJ said, "This two-year suspended prison sentence is an act of retaliation for Irina Khalip's critical reporting" adding that, combined with the restrictions placed on her movements, is "designed to further chill critical journalism."
The trial follows December's election, which was largely viewed as rigged. Lukashenko was declared winner with nearly 80 percent of the vote.
On election night, police violently dispersed a rally that drew tens of thousands of protesters. Around 700 people were arrested, including seven presidential candidates. More than 20 opposition activists have been sentenced to prison.
Khalip, the Minsk-based correspondent for the Russian paper "Novaya Gazeta", will be on probation and will have to face the court again in two years' time. According to CPJ, she must also tell police all of her travel plans, and is banned from leaving Minsk for longer than a month and changing residences.
After the hearing, she told reporters that her trial was political. "I still feel like a political hostage," she said. Her lawyers will appeal the verdict.
Sannikov, who won the most votes among the nine opposition candidates with 2.43 percent, said during his trial that he was tortured by the secret police, whose chief personally threatened harsh reprisals against his wife and their 4 year old son. Authorities threatened earlier this year to put their son in an orphanage.
Since the sentencing, the U.S. and EU have called for the release of political prisoners in Belarus and threatened to expand sanctions. After the December protests, they imposed harsh sanctions on the government, including imposing a travel ban on Lukashenko and other top officials.
Russia's foreign ministry criticised the "harsh" sentences, and urged Minsk "to be more responsible in complying with international obligations in human rights." According to news reports, the Kremlin has recently put pressure on Belarus, its ally, in an apparent effort to squeeze concessions on economic issues.
According to Janna Litvina, chair of the Belarus Association of Journalists (BAJ), Belarus's difficult economic situation is forcing the regime to seek further confrontation with the independent press. Meanwhile, Belarusians are looking for independent information "as never before," she said. More than a dozen journalists took part in a flash mob on 4 May in support of the independent papers "Narodnaya Volia" and "Nasha Niva", which the government has threatened to close.
During the opening ceremony of the official "Media in Belarus" exhibition, they pulled out copies of the papers and read them while ministry officials gave their greeting speeches. This year, the exhibition's organisers did not allow the United Mass Media Regional Press Association, a union of 20 non-state papers, to attend "for organisational and technical reasons."
"In Belarus a journalists' life has never been easy, but now it seems to be an extreme resistance test," Olga Birukova, a Belarusian journalist based in London, wrote on Index's blog. "Some journalists have left the country, some have gone on hunger strike and some struggle on from prison."