Belarus jails journalists for two years over protest coverage

Two Belarusian journalists have been sentenced to two years in prison after filming live coverage of last November's protests against President Alexander Lukashenko, following an election that opponents say was rigged.

MINSK (AFP) - A court in Belarus on Thursday (Feb 18) sentenced a pair of television journalists to two years in prison for covering a protest last year, the first lengthy jail term in a legal crackdown on independent news media.

Standing defiant in a cage, Katerina Bakhvalova, 27, and Daria Chultsova, 23, flashed V for victory signs as they smiled and blew kisses to the courtroom ahead of the verdict.

The two women were detained in November while filming one of the anti-government rallies that swept Belarus after strongman Alexander Lukashenko claimed victory in an August election that the opposition said was rigged.

The women, who denied their guilt on the first day of their trial earlier this month, were accused of "attracting people to participate in a mass event" via their broadcast and convicted of leading "group actions that grossly violate public order".

Exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya praised the two journalists for their defiance following the verdict.

"I know that we will not live in a cage. We will achieve truth and freedom - thanks to Ekaterina Andreyeva, Daria Chultsova, all honest journalists," she wrote on her Telegram channel, using Bakhvalova's pen name.

The case has sparked widespread condemnation from Western countries and advocacy groups.

The United States condemned the renewed crackdown and said it was imposing visa restrictions on another 43 Belarusian officials and other figures seen as suppressing democracy.

"We stand with the brave people of Belarus and support their right to free and fair elections," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.

The president of neighbouring Poland called for an amnesty in Belarus, while EU foreign policy spokesman Peter Stano said the bloc "strongly condemns" the prison sentences, which he called a continuation of a "shameful crackdown on media."