After Crushing Protests, President of Belarus Exacts Revenge

MOSCOW — In a ruling that reflected the broader crackdown on dissent by President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus, a court on Thursday sentenced two young journalists to two years in prison for reporting from a demonstration against his rule.

A district court in the capital, Minsk, ruled that the journalists, Catarina Andreeva, 27, and Darja Chulcova, 23, incited unrest by reporting for the Polish television channel Belsat via a video stream from a protest rally.

The court said that, by doing so, the journalists had attracted more people to the rally, creating more work for law enforcement and obstructing public transport.

The journalists said they were doing their job of informing the public.

“Every day I risked my life and health to do my job,” Ms. Andreeva told the court on Wednesday. In the end, she said, she could take comfort from the knowledge that her “conscience is clean.”

The Thursday sentencing was the latest episode in a campaign to silence all forms of opposition to Mr. Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus for over 26 years.

And after months of sustained repression, Mr. Lukashenko appears confident that he has weathered the greatest threat to his power in decades.

“We have kept our country intact,” Mr. Lukashenko said last week in a speech during a meeting with allies. “For now.”

Speaking for more than four hours in a packed auditorium — with few in the crowd seeming to be wearing masks to guard against the spread of coronavirus — he said “the blitzkrieg” against Belarus, launched by Western states, had failed.

The meeting, which drew more than 2,500 pro-Lukashenko bureaucrats and activists from across the country, was carefully choreographed to assert that the wave of protests was an external attack that was successfully defeated.

Mr. Lukashenko’s iron grip on power seemed to be slipping in August, after a presidential election widely regarded as rigged to ensure his victory.

Demonstrations calling for his ouster drew hundreds of thousands of people, eclipsing government-organized rallies in his defense. At a tractor factory, workers, always regarded as Mr. Lukashenko’s core electorate, booed him.

At the time, Mr. Lukashenko looked increasingly disoriented, seeking help from President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, his authoritarian ally. The Kremlin threw him a lifeline by offering a loan and dispatching a group of propaganda specialists to Belarus.

Backed by Mr. Putin, the Belarusian leader had no need to look for any approval from the West. He was free to go as far as possible to make sure protests were suppressed.

He unleashed a crackdown on the protests with a level of brutality unseen in Europe for decades.

The police used tear gas and rubber bullets against peaceful protests indiscriminately. Hundreds were tortured in police precincts and detention centers. At least four people were killed. Overall, more than 1,800 criminal cases were opened against activists, according to Viasna, a human rights group. More than 33,000 were detained by law enforcement following the presidential election, the group said.

In retrospect, Moscow’s help appeared to be key in allowing Mr. Lukashenko to outlast the biggest wave of protests during his rule, said Yauheni Preiherman, director of the Minsk Dialogue Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank.

After months of determined civic action, the repression took its toll and the protests slowly lost momentum. At the same time, the increasingly emboldened president unleashed the full force of his robust security apparatus to take revenge against a movement that pushed his rule to the brink of collapse.

On Wednesday, a court in Minsk began hearing the case against Viktor Babariko, Mr. Lukashenko’s most popular political opponent, according to recent polls.

Mr. Babariko, who headed a Russian state-owned bank in Minsk, has been regarded as a serious threat to Mr. Lukashenko because of his popularity and because of his connection to Moscow. He was arrested in June on corruption charges and is now facing up to 15 years in prison.

On Tuesday, police officers also raided 90 offices and apartments belonging to the few remaining civil society organizations in Belarus, including Viasna, a prominent human rights group, a nongovernmental union of journalists, and an independent trades union.

Other people were sentenced to administrative arrests for drawing the traditional white and red flag associated with the opposition on walls of their own houses.

Activists, who were collecting money to help protesters pay their fines, were accused of financing unrest. At the beginning of February, the police arrested two members of a prominent Minsk-based NGO helping people with disabilities. They now face criminal charges.

Artyom Shraibman, the founder of Sense-Analytics, a Minsk consulting firm and research group, called ongoing crackdown a “counterrevolution,” saying that Belarus “didn’t see such repressions since the Stalinist times.”

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