A court in Belarus on Thursday sentenced a pair of young television journalists to two years in prison for covering a protest last year, the first lengthy jail term in a legal crackdown on independent media.
Standing defiant in a cage, Katerina Bakhvalova, 27, and Daria Chultsova, 23, flashed V for victory signs as they smiled and blew kisses to the courtroom ahead of the verdict.
The two women were detained in November while filming one of the anti-government rallies that swept Belarus after strongman Alexander Lukashenko claimed victory in an August election that the opposition and many Western countries said was fraudulent.
The women, who denied their guilt on the first day of their trial earlier this month, were accused of “attracting people to participate in a mass event” via their broadcast and convicted of leading “group actions that grossly violate public order.”
Exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya praised the two journalists for their defiance following the verdict.
“I know that we will not live in a cage. We will achieve truth and freedom — thanks to Ekaterina Andreyeva, Daria Chultsova, all honest journalists,” she wrote on her Telegram channel, using Bakhvalova’s pen name.
The case also sparked widespread condemnation from press advocacy groups and diplomats in Western countries, with the U.S. embassy in Belarus calling the charges “absurd.”
After the protests broke out in August, Belarusian authorities unleashed a crackdown that left at least four protesters dead, thousands in jail and hundreds claiming torture in custody.
Bakhvalova and Chultsova, who work for the Poland-based television channel Belsat, were detained filming a rally on Nov. 15 in support of a protester the opposition believes died at the hands of Lukashenko’s security services.
“I showed these events live. For this I was thrown into jail on trumped-up charges,” Belsat reported Bakhvalova as telling the judge Wednesday in her final statement before sentencing.
The demonstrator, 31-year-old former soldier Roman Bondarenko, died from brain damage in Minsk after police arrested him following a dispute in a city square that was a meeting place for the opposition.
At the time, investigators said a 31-year-old Minsk resident had shown signs of intoxication, but a doctor speaking on condition of anonymity to independent Belarusian news site Tut.by said medical staff had found no alcohol in Bondarenko’s system.
The journalist who published the story, Katerina Borisevich, and the doctor, Artyom Sorokin, were detained on Nov. 19 on charges of “divulging medical secrets, which entailed grave consequences”. They are set to go on trial Friday.
The prosecutor general’s office said in a statement Thursday it had opened a criminal case into Bondarenko’s death.
Lukashenko weathered the opposition protests and last week gathered loyalists for a defiant address, claiming his ex-Soviet country had defeated a foreign intervention.
The authorities are pursuing a number of criminal cases against activists and the press as the protests subside.
Eleven journalists are currently detained in connection with the protests, according to the independent Belarus Association of Journalists (BAJ).
On Wednesday a trial also began in the case of leading opposition member Viktor Babaryko, who was arrested in June ahead of the presidential election after he announced he would run against Lukashenko.
The former banker was one of several opposition figures who were arrested or fled ahead of the election.
Several Western leaders have refused to recognize the election results, while the European Union has imposed sanctions on Lukashenko and his allies.
But Lukashenko continues to receive the backing of Moscow, and on Thursday the Kremlin said Russian President Vladimir Putin would host him for talks on Monday.