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Two journalists jailed for two years in Belarus for filming protests

epa08773247 Protesters march during a rally against government and President Lukashenko in Minsk, Belarus, 25 October 2020. According to reports, over 100,000 opposition activists took to the streets against Belarusian government and President Alexander Lukashenko calling him to step down and demanding new presidential elections. EPA-EFE/STR

KYIV, Feb 18 (Reuters) - A Belarusian court sentenced two Belarusian journalists from Poland-based TV news channel Belsat who filmed protests against President Alexander Lukashenko to two years in prison on Thursday.

Katsiaryna Andreyeva, 27, and Darya Chultsova, 23, were detained in an apartment in November from where they had been filming protests taking place over the death of a protester who was killed several days earlier.

Both women pleaded not guilty after being accused of orchestrating the demonstrations by filming them.

The two journalists appeared in a cage at the hearing on Thursday, hugging and making “V” for victory signs. Their lawyer said they would appeal the verdict.

“Just look at Darya and Katsiaryna – strong, smiling, and saying goodbyes to their loved ones through bars. Lukashenka can’t break us,” exiled opposition figure Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya wrote on Twitter.

Neighbouring Lithuania, where Tsikhanouskaya is based, urged Minsk to end a “spiral of repression” while Poland said Belarus should end its persecution of journalists.

More than 33,000 people have been detained in a violent crackdown on protests against Lukashenko’s rule following a contested election last August that his opponents say was rigged to extend his rule. He has been in office since 1994.

The crackdown prompted Western countries to impose new sanctions on Minsk. Lukashenko has refused to step down, buttressed by support from Moscow, which sees Belarus as a buffer state against the European Union and NATO.

“Every time I went to work, I risked my health and life,” Andreyeva had said in a statement earlier. “I managed to hide from rubber bullets, explosions of stun grenades, blows from truncheons. My colleagues were much less fortunate.”

“I have everything: youth, a job that I love, fame and, most importantly, a clear conscience.”

The journalists were filming protests after the death of 31-year-old Roman Bondarenko, who died in hospital in November after what protesters say was a severe beating by security forces. The interior ministry denied responsibility.

Polish President Andrzej Duda instructed Polish diplomats in Minsk to convey to the Belarusian government his opposition to the repression of freedom of speech and civil rights. He called for it to stop and for an amnesty for detainees, presidential aide Krzysztof Szczerski said.

Lukashenko has mixed promises of reform with a renewed crackdown this week that saw police raiding the homes of journalists and rights activists and one of Lukashenko’s main electoral opponents put on trial for corruption.

A separate trial begins on Friday of a journalist from the local outlet TUT.BY who contradicted the government’s assertion that Bondarenko had been drunk at the time of his death.

The Belsat TV channel specializes in news from Belarus and employs mostly Belarusian citizens. (Additional reporting by Agnieszka Barteczko in Warsaw; writing by Matthias Williams; editing by John Stonestreet and Angus MacSwan)

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