(Moscow) A court in Minsk sentenced Friday to 12 years in prison two leaders of the independent information site Tut.by, in the midst of a wave of repression orchestrated in Belarus by the regime of Alexander Lukashenko.
According to the specialized NGO Viasna, the editor-in-chief of the site Marina Zolotova, 45, and its general manager Lioudmila Tchekina, 54, were sentenced after a closed trial that lasted more than two months.
“The verdict against our colleagues is a cruel revenge for having transmitted with [leur média] Tut.by the truth to Belarusians”, reacted the Belarusian Association of Journalists, stating that 36 media employees were currently imprisoned in the country.
The leader of the Belarusian opposition in exile, Svetlana Tikhanovskaïa, for her part denounced a “new attempt to kill honest journalism”.
“It’s revenge aimed at two beautiful women and two great professionals […] I have absolutely no doubt that their values […] will overcome and they will regain their freedom. And until the world can hear them, we will be their voices,” said Ms.me Tikhanovskaya in a statement.
Marina Zolotova and Lioudmila Tchekina were notably accused of tax evasion and incitement to social hatred, charges previously described as “absurd” by the NGO Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which rose up on Friday against a “conviction iniquitous”.
The two women appeared at the verdict in the glass cage reserved for the defendants, their hands handcuffed and smiling shyly, according to images published by state media Belta.
They had been arrested in May 2021 and have since been behind bars. Two journalists and a lawyer from Tut.by, who fled Belarus, are also being tried separately in absentia.
Friday’s sentencing is emblematic of Mr. Lukashenko’s ruthless repression against any criticism of his regime, since a vast protest movement that made him falter in 2020.
For weeks, the popular Tut.by site has been covering the protest, which has gathered tens of thousands of people on the streets of Minsk and other cities to denounce the hotly contested re-election of Alexander Lukashenko, in power since three decades.
10 years in prison for two other women
Tut.by had been labeled “extremist” by the authorities and blocked in Belarus in 2021. But several of its journalists who left Belarus relaunched the site under a new name, Zerkalo (“mirror”, in Russian).
” We are proud of you. Your integrity and your perseverance are an example for all of us,” the Zerkalo journalists said in a message published on their site on Friday, ahead of the verdict.
Several opponents and leading civil society figures have been sentenced to heavy prison terms in recent months.
A few minutes before the verdict against the leaders of tut.by, two other women, Valeria Kostiugova and Tatiana Kouzina, were sentenced to 10 years in prison by the same court in Minsk.
Arrested in June 2021, the first worked as a political scientist and the second was an expert in public administration issues. They were accused of “conspiracy to seize power”, calls to harm “state security” and “incitement to hatred”.
At the beginning of March, the opponent Svetlana Tikhanovskaïa was sentenced in absentia to 15 years in prison, after a trial which she described as a judicial “farce”.
On March 3, activist Ales Bialiatski, co-winner of the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize and figure of the democracy movement in Belarus where he still is, was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
According to the Belarusian human rights organization Viasna, Belarus had 1,460 political prisoners as of March 17.
Westerners imposed heavy sanctions in Belarus for the crackdown on the 2020 protests, but Mr Lukashenko’s regime still enjoys Moscow’s unwavering support.