Belarusian Journalist Accused Of Being In An Extremist Group After Covering Protests Gets Prison

TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — A Belarusian journalist was sentenced to three years in prison Tuesday on an extremism charge related to his work covering protests, the latest move in a sweeping government crackdown on dissent.

The Minsk City Court convicted photojournalist Alyaksandr Zyankou on charges of “participation in an extremist group,” an accusation widely used by authorities to target opposition members, civil society activists and independent journalists.

Zyankou has been in custody since his arrest in June, and his health has deteriorated behind bars, according to the independent Belarusian Association of Journalists.

“It's absurd that they sentenced a photographer to three years in prison for fulfilling his professional duty of taking pictures,” said the association’s head, Andrei Bastunets. “The situation with freedom of speech in Belarus is the worst in Europe.”

Zyankou refused to testify against himself during the trial held behind closed doors.

A total of 35 Belarusian journalists are in prison either awaiting trial or serving sentences.

Belarusian authorities have cracked down on opponents of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko after huge protests triggered by the August 2020 election that gave him a sixth term. The balloting was viewed by the opposition and the West as fraudulent.

Protests swept the country for months, bringing hundreds of thousands into the streets. More than 35,000 people were arrested, thousands were beaten in police custody and hundreds of independent media outlets and nongovernmental organizations were shut down and outlawed.

More than 1,400 political prisoners remain behind bars, including leaders of opposition parties and renowned human rights advocate and 2022 Nobel Peace Prize winner Ales Bialiatski.