A court in Belarus on Thursday sentenced two journalists working for a Polish-based opposition television channel to two years in jail.

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The pair had been arrested in November for filming protests against President Alexander Lukashenko.

They were detained on charges of fomenting protests against the strongman leader.

Authorities in the former Soviet republic are pursuing several criminal cases against activists and journalists in the wake of months of anti-government protests last year.

Protests swept Belarus after Lukashenko claimed a landslide victory in an August election. Both the opposition and many Western countries said the result was fraud.

The authorities unleashed a decisive crackdown that left at least four protesters dead, thousands jailed and hundreds claiming torture while in custody.

The television station Belsat said the two journalists, Katerina Bakhvalova, 27, and Daria Chultsova, 23, were sentenced for leading “group actions that grossly violate public order.” 

Both women denied their guilt on the opening day of their trial earlier this month, since when they have been held in pre-trial custody. They flashed V for victory signs from inside a cage for defendants in the court. The two had been filming a November rally in support of a dead anti-government protester.

“I showed these events live. For this I was thrown into jail on trumped-up charges,” Belsat reported Bakhvalova as telling a judge Wednesday in her final statement before sentencing.

Charges against the opposition

Press advocacy groups and diplomats in Western countries have sharply condemned the arrests and demanded that the women be released.Earlier this week, police said they raided some 90 homes and offices belonging to journalists, rights defenders and trade union.

A trial began on Wednesday in the case of leading opposition member Viktor Babaryko. The 57-year-old was arrested in June ahead of the presidential election, having announced he would run against Lukashenko.

KGB security services accused Babaryko of receiving bribes and “laundering funds obtained by criminal means” when he was chief of Belgazprombank, the Belarusian branch of a bank belonging to the Russian energy giant Gazprom.

rc/rt (AFP, Reuters)

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