A court in Belarus sentenced two journalists with the independent Belsat TV channel to two years in prison for live-streaming a demonstration, their employer and Belarussian Association of Journalists said in statements following the court hearing Thursday.
Journalists Darya Chultsova, 23, and Yekaterina Andreyeva, 27, were detained in November while covering a demonstration in memory of an opposition activist who died in Minsk a few days before.
Local media reported that the activist, Roman Bondarenko, apparently died from injuries sustained after being beaten by riot police. The Prosecutor General of Belarus announced on Wednesday that an investigation into his death has been launched but said “that the involvement of employees of the internal affairs bodies in causing Bondarenko bodily harm has not been established.”
The court on Thursday ruled that Chultsova and Andreyeva are guilty of “organizing a demonstration that grossly violates public order.”
According to the investigators, Belsat reported, the journalists allegedly gathered protesters by talking about it on air, which then led to “interruptions of public transport in the area.” Chultsova and Andreyeva maintain they are innocent.
“I have everything: youth, a job that I love, prominence and, most importantly, a clear conscience. I want to devote all my energy to the creation of Belarus without political repression. I demand an acquittal for myself, for my colleagues and for hundreds of political prisoners,” Andreyeva said at a previous court hearing on Wednesday, according to local media.
Belarussian human rights group Viasna designated Chultsova and Andreyeva as political prisoners and said charges against them are drawn up because of their journalistic work. Belsat is a politically independent TV channel based in Poland that primarily reports on Belarus. Its budget relies on Polish state subsidies.
A spokesperson for the US State Department condemned the convictions, saying they appeared “politically motivated,” and called on the Belarusian government to release all journalists in custody.
“Every Belarusian citizen is entitled to the rights provided in the Belarusian constitution, and Belarus has international obligations to respect the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly,” the spokesperson said.
“We stand with the Belarusian people in their aspirations for a democratic, prosperous future and support their call for the regime to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
Belarus has been engulfed in mass protests since presidential elections in August 2020, after Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, secured his sixth term. Independent observers said the election was rigged, and tens of thousands poured onto the streets to demand Lukashenko’s resignation.
Riot police have cracked down harshly, beating and detaining thousands of protesters. CNN and other outlets previously reported on torture in detention centers described by former detainees and their families as well as persecution opposition activists faced in Belarus.
“Just look at Darya and Katsiaryna [the Belarusian spelling of Yekaterina] – strong, smiling, and saying goodbyes to their loved ones through bars. Lukashenka [Lukashenko] can’t break us,” exiled Belarussian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya said in a tweet on Thursday.
CNN’s Jennifer Hansler contributed to this report.