A court in Belarus handed two local journalists two-year prison sentences on Thursday for their live coverage of an anti-government rally in the capital Minsk late last year. Katerina Andreeva, 27, and Daria Chultsova, 23, who both work for Poland-based television network Belsat, were convicted of fomenting protest with their live-streamed coverage of a demonstration against Belarus' autocratic President Alexander Lukashenko.
They were found guilty of "organization and preparation of actions that grossly violate public order" while doing their live-stream coverage of an unauthorized demonstration last November, the Belarus Association of Journalists said. The two women both pleaded not guilty and dismissed the charges as trumped-up political persecution.
Belarusian authorities have launched a series of criminal investigations targeting opposition activists and journalists following the months-long protests over Lukashenko's claimed landslide victory in an August presidential election. The official election results were condemned by many in Belarus and the West as a mockery of democracy.
Belarus authorities responded to the protests with a mass crackdown, resulting in the deaths of at least four protesters, thousands of arrests and hundreds of people being severely beaten in custody.
Andreeva and Chultsova were arrested inside an apartment in central Minsk from which they were covering a mass rally outside in memory of 31-year-old activist Roman Bondarenko. He was beaten by masked men who had been tearing down opposition symbols posted on the streets, and he later died in a hospital after being detained by police.
The investigation into Andreeva's and Chultsova's actions concluded that they helped cause a disruption of public transport.
"They committed this crime with the help of phones, wearing the 'Press' vests," the prosecutor said in court, according to the Belsat network.
"I showed those events in the Square of Change in a live broadcast on Belsat TV, which resulted in my being locked up under a fabricated and preposterous charge," Andreeva told the court. She and Chultsova hugged and smiled inside a defendants' cage in the Minsk courtroom.
Belarus human rights groups have labeled the journalists political prisoners. The International Federation of Journalists, along with the European Federation of Journalists, condemned the Thursday ruling in a statement saying the women had been, "sentenced to two years in prison for doing their job."
"Today's verdict is a clear attack on press freedom and we all stand together against this mockery of justice," IFJ President Younes Mjahed said in a statement. "This conviction is intended to intimidate the entire profession, to criminalize journalism. The repressive drift of dictator Lukashenko's regime requires a rapid and firm reaction from the international community."
The leader of Belarus' political opposition, Sviatlana Tikhanovskaya, who's currently living in exile in Europe, also criticized the ruling and praised the two journalists' bravery.
"Just look at Darya and Katsiaryna — strong, smiling, and saying goodbyes to their loved ones through bars," said Tikhanovskaya in a tweet. "Lukashenka can't break us."
Earlier this week another Belarus court started hearing the case against leading opposition member Viktor Babariko, who was arrested in June before he could challenge Lukashenko's 26-year rule in the presidential election. He faces up to 15 years in prison on bribery charges.
Lukashenko, who rode out the protests last year thanks largely to the backing of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has said he's planning to draft a new constitution, but he hasn't given any indication whether he might step down. Opposition leaders have dismissed his promises for constitutional reform and say he must leave office.
Lukashenko and Putin are scheduled to meet in Russia on Monday.