Belarus has sentenced two reporters, including one working for German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle, to 20 days in jail for allegedly participating in an unsanctioned demonstration.
The May 15 ruling is the latest in a series by Belarusian courts aimed at intimidating reporters covering the state’s brutal crackdown on peaceful demonstrators, critics say
Deutsche Welle freelance reporter Alyaksandr Burakou and independent reporter Uladzimer Laptsevich were detained on May 12 in Mahileu, a town 200 kilometers east of the Belarusian capital, Minsk, where they were waiting to cover the trial of opposition politician Paval Severinets.
Belarusian police charged them with "repeatedly participating in an unsanctioned demonstration within a year."
The reporters rejected the charges. Belarusian human rights group MayDay said there was no mass demonstration on May 12 in front of the court in Mahileu.
Deutsche Welle Director-General Peter Limbourg called on Belarusian officials to free the reporters immediately.
"We strongly protest against the violation of the constitutionally guaranteed press rights in Belarus," Limbourg said in a statement. "This accusation was constructed arbitrarily, and the way [Alyaksandr] Burakou has been treated shows that the regime is taking increasingly ruthless actions against journalists."
Burakou told the court that he had been subject to inhumane treatment in the detention facility. He complained that police guards regularly woke him, hampering his sleep.
He also said they failed to hand him personal care products and warm clothes brought to the detention center by his family.
Belarusian authorities have stepped up their repression of journalists and bloggers ever since the start of mass protests sparked by the August 9 presidential election.
Protesters say the election was rigged in favor of strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who has ruled Belarus since 1994.
Dozens of reporters have been temporarily detained or jailed over the ensuing nine months. Burakou was detained right before the election initially on a charge of "transporting counterfeit alcohol."
However, he was later sentenced to 10 days in jail for petty hooliganism in what he said was an attempt to prevent him from covering the election.
German Foreign Ministry spokesman Christofer Burger told Deutsche Welle on May 14 that the repression of journalists was "unacceptable" and "a clear violation of Belarus's international obligations."