HOMEL, Belarus – A well-known Belarusian human rights lawyer and his assistant were sentenced to prison terms for the legal assistance they provided to activists, journalists and others.
A court in the southeastern city of Gomel on November 3rd sentenced Leanid Sudalenka and Tatsyana Lasitsa to three and 2 1/2 years in prison, respectively, for “organizing and preparing actions that grossly violate public order and funding such activities”.
Both pleaded not guilty in the closed door trial.
Read our current coverage when the Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka increased the pressure on NGOs and independent media as part of a brutal crackdown on demonstrators and the opposition following what was widely considered to be a fraudulent election in August 2020.
A third defendant in the case, Maria Tarasenka, who was not in custody, fled the country after the trial began in early September.
“The judgments are exacerbating a situation that has already reached alarming proportions with the recent liquidation of the remaining registered human rights NGOs,” Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatovic said in a statement to Society in the country. “
Both Sudalenka and Lasitsa were working for the Vyasna Human Rights Center when they were arrested in January.
Vyasna, one of dozens of civil society organizations targeted in the massive crackdown on Lukashenka, condemned the convictions of its members.
“The politically motivated criminal prosecution of Vyasna members and volunteers takes place within the framework of the ‘cleansing’ of civil society announced by Alyaksandr Lukashenka,” Vyasna told a joint opinion with 17 other human rights organizations.
“There is no doubt that the authorities are persecuting Vyasna in retaliation for his 25 years of excellent and fearless work in the defense of human rights.”
Five other human rights defenders from Vyasna are currently behind bars on politically motivated charges.
The verdicts are part of a brutal crackdown sparked by protests against the results of a presidential election in August 2020, which Lukashenka allegedly won through a landslide. The opposition says the vote has been rigged and much of the West has refused to recognize the results.
Regardless of the court ruling of November 3rd, the Interior Ministry called she had described the television station Belsat and its social networks as an “extremist formation”.
The announcement followed a court ruling two days earlier in Minsk sentencing a Belsat representative Iryna Slavnikava and her husband Alyaksandr Loyka to 15 days in prison for sharing “extremist” content on Facebook.
The Polish-funded Belsat was classified as “extremist” by the Belarusian authorities in July and its website and all social media accounts were blocked. The television broadcaster reported extensively on mass protests after last year’s presidential election.
According to the Belarusian Union of Journalists, 28 journalists are currently behind bars, including two from Belsat, Katsyaryna Andreyeva and Darya Chultsova, who were sentenced to two years in prison in February for reporting on the protests.
The mass protests against Lukashenka were confronted with the clumsy and sometimes violent imprisonment of tens of thousands of people. Much of the opposition leadership was imprisoned or forced into exile.
Vyasna says it regards 827 people as political prisoners for exercising their basic right to peaceful protest, expression, or legitimate political activity.
Several demonstrators were killed and thousands arrested in mass demonstrations calling for Lukashenka’s resignation. There were also what human rights groups call credible reports of torture in the raid.