MINSK -- Belarusian journalist Andrey Alyaksandrau, who was arrested in January amid an ongoing crackdown on media and pro-democracy activists, has been charged with high treason.
Alyaksandrau and his girlfriend Iryna Zlobina were arrested on January 12 and charged with "organizing and preparing activities that violate public order" over unsanctioned mass rallies demanding that long-time authoritarian ruler of the country, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, step down.
On July 1, Alyaksandrau's lawyer, Anton Hashynski, said his client was given the new charge on June 30.
Alyaksandrau now faces up to 15 years in prison. On the initial charge, Alyaksandrau and Zlobina faced up to six months in prison, the term that expires on July 12.
Crisis In Belarus
Read our coverage as Belarusians continue to demand the resignation of Alyaksandr Lukashenka amid a brutal crackdown on protesters. The West refuses to recognize him as the country's legitimate leader after an August 2020 election considered fraudulent.
The unprecedented protest rallies across the country erupted in early August 2020 after election officials handed Lukashenka a sixth term in office following a presidential election that many in Belarus say was rigged.
Two days after their arrest in January, police searched offices of the independent BelaPAN news agency in Minsk, where Alyaksandrau used to work as an editor in the past.
The Belarusian Interior Ministry said at the time that Alyaksandrau and Zlobina helped more than 250 anti-government protesters pay fines they were ordered to pay over their involvement in mass protests demanding Lukashenka's resignation.
Deputy Interior Minister Henadz Kazakevich said the couple received money to pay the fines on behalf of the protesters from ByHelp Fund. The fund's two founders, Alyaksey Lyavonchyk and Andrey Stryzhak, fled Belarus earlier fearing for their safety.
The Minsk-based Vyasna human rights center has condemned the arrests of Alyaksandrau and Zlobina, calling it politically motivated and linked to their civil rights activities.
It is not clear at this point if Zlobina was also charged with high treason.
Belarusian security forces have cracked down hard on journalists, rights defenders, and pro-democracy demonstrators, arresting thousands and pushing many activists and most of the top opposition figures out of the country.
Several protesters have been killed in the violence and some rights organizations say there is credible evidence of torture being used by security officials against some of those detained.
Lukashenka, who has run the country since 1994, has denied any wrongdoing with regard to the election and has refused to negotiate with the opposition on stepping down and holding new elections.
The European Union, the United States, Canada, and other countries have refused to recognize Lukashenka as the legitimate leader of Belarus and have imposed sanctions on him and several senior Belarusian officials in response to the "falsification" of the vote and the postelection crackdown.