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Andrey Alyaksandrau

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.

Platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, and TikTok played an outsize role in promoting a series of massive anti-government rallies in Moscow and elsewhere earlier this year.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed into law a bill that obliges foreign IT companies to set up local units or face penalties including a possible ban as Moscow continues to try and tighten its control over the flow of information on the Internet.

The bill, signed by Putin on July 1 and placed on the official website for legal information, requires foreign IT companies with a daily audience of at least 500,000 people to set up full-fledged branches in Russia that would be "responsible for violations of Russian legislation."

All IT companies, owners of websites, information systems, and programs that distribute content in Russian or languages of the ethnic groups in the Russian Federation would be affected by the law. In addition, firms that run advertising targeting Russian citizens, process personal data of users based in Russia, or receive financial support from Russian citizens or companies will have to establish branches in Russia as of January 1, 2022.

In addition, the law makes it mandatory for such entities to register on the website of Russia's media watchdog, Roskomnadzor, for mutual communication.

The law comes as the Internet rapidly gains clout in Russia, offering a vehicle to challenge the Kremlin narrative and prompting Putin to turn his sights on social-media companies.

In 2019, Russia passed a "sovereign Internet" law that gives officials wide-ranging powers to restrict online traffic, up to the point of isolating the country from cross-border Internet connections during national emergencies.

Moscow has repeatedly warned that it is ready to use the "sovereign Internet" law if unrest were to reach a serious scale.

In January and early February, platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, and TikTok played an outsize role in promoting a series of massive anti-government rallies in Moscow and elsewhere and ushered in an intensified push to fine-tune what appears online in Russia.

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About This Blog

"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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