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Belarus jails journalists for filming protests, U.S. imposes new sanctions


By Matthias Williams

KYIV (Reuters) - A Belarusian court on Thursday jailed a pair of journalists for two years on charges of orchestrating protests against President Alexander Lukashenko, while Washington imposed visa restrictions on 43 Belarusian officials it accused of undermining democracy.

Belarusians Katsiaryna Andreyeva, 27, and Darya Chultsova, 23, were detained in November in an apartment they had been using as a vantage point to film demonstrations over the death of a protester killed several days earlier.

Both women, who were working for Belsat, a Warsaw-based satellite TV channel that provides Belarussians with an alternative to state-run television, pleaded not guilty. They appeared in a cage at Thursday's hearing, hugging and making "V"-for-victory signs. Their lawyer said they would appeal.

Asked about Thursday's verdict, Belarusian Information Minister Igor Lutsky said the court would not have made its ruling unless it was justified.

More than 33,000 people have been detained in a violent crackdown on protests against Lukashenko's rule following a contested August election his opponents say was rigged. He has been in office since 1994.

In Washington later on Thursday, the United States announced visa restrictions on 43 Belarusians, including law enforcement officials it accused of detaining and abusing peaceful demonstrators. Also targeted were judges and prosecutors allegedly involved in sentencing protesters and journalists.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States was alarmed by Lukashenko's violent crackdown on protesters, activists and journalists.

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

Neighbouring Lithuania, where Tsikhanouskaya is based, urged Minsk to end a "spiral of repression". Poland said it would have "very serious consequences".

The European Union's foreign affairs spokesman, Peter Stano, condemned the "shameful crackdown on media".

Exiled opposition figure Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya praised the spirit of the two journalists, writing in a tweet: "Just look at Darya and Katsiaryna – strong, smiling, and saying goodbyes to their loved ones through bars. Lukashenka can't break us."

RENEWED CRACKDOWN

The crackdown prompted new Western sanctions. Lukashenko has refused to step down, buttressed by support from Moscow, which sees Belarus as a buffer against the European Union and NATO.

In a statement earlier, Andreyeva said she had risked her health and life for her work.

"I managed to hide from rubber bullets, explosions of stun grenades, blows from truncheons. My colleagues were much less fortunate," she said. "I have everything: youth, a job that I love, fame and, most importantly, a clear conscience."

The journalists were filming protests after the death of 31-year-old Roman Bondarenko, who died in hospital in November after what protesters say was a severe beating by security forces. The interior ministry denied responsibility.

Lukashenko has mixed promises of reform with a renewed crackdown this week that saw police raiding the homes of journalists and rights activists and one of Lukashenko's main electoral opponents put on trial for corruption.

A separate trial begins on Friday of a journalist from the local outlet TUT.BY who contradicted the government's assertion that Bondarenko had been drunk at the time of his death.

(Reporting by Matthias Williams; Additional reporting by Agnieszka Barteczko in Warsaw, Robin Emmott in Brussels, Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber in Moscow and David Brunnstrom, Daphne Psaledakis and Jonathan Landay in Washington; Writing by Matthias Williams and David Brunnstrom; Editing by Angus MacSwan, Peter Graff and Peter Cooney)

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