HOMEL, Belarus -- A well-known Belarusian human rights lawyer and his assistant have been sentenced to prison terms on charges related to the legal assistance they provided to activists, journalists, and others caught up in an ongoing crackdown by authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka's regime.
A court in the southeastern city of Homel on November 3 sentenced Leanid Sudalenka and Tatsyana Lasitsa to three years and 2 1/2 years in prison, respectively, for the "organization and preparation of actions grossly violating public order and financing such activities."
Both pleaded not guilty in the closed-door trial.
Crisis In Belarus
Read our ongoing coverage as Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka ramps up pressure on NGOs and independent media as part of a brutal crackdown against protesters and the opposition following an August 2020 election widely considered fraudulent.
A third defendant in the case, Maria Tarasenka, who was not in pretrial detention, fled the country after the trial started in early September.
“The verdicts further aggravate a situation that had already reached alarming levels, with the recent liquidation of the remaining registered human rights nongovernmental organizations," Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Dunja Mijatovic said in a statement. "The authorities are deliberately and systematically dismantling civil society in the country."
Both Sudalenka and Lasitsa were working for the Vyasna human rights center at the time of their arrest in January.
Vyasna, one of dozens of civil society organizations targeted in Lukashenka's sweeping crackdown, condemned the sentencing of its members.
"The politically motivated criminal prosecution of Vyasna members and volunteers is being carried out within the framework of the 'cleanup' of civil society announced by Alyaksandr Lukashenka," Vyasna said a joint statement with 17 other human rights organizations.
"There is no doubt that the authorities are persecuting Vyasna in retaliation for its 25 years of outstanding and fearless work in defending human rights."
Five other human rights defenders from Vyasna are currently behind bars on what the group says are politically motivated charges.
The sentences are part of a brutal crackdown that was sparked by protests over the results of an August 2020 presidential election that Lukashenka claims to have won by a landslide. The opposition says the vote was rigged and much of the West has refused to acknowledge the results.
Separately from the court decision on November 3, the Interior Ministry said it had labeled the Belsat television channel and its social networks as an "extremist formation."
The announcement came on the heels of a court decision in Minsk two days earlier to sentence a representative of Belsat, Iryna Slavnikava, and her husband, Alyaksandr Loyka, to 15 days in jail each for sharing "extremist" content on Facebook.
Polish-funded Belsat was declared "extremist" by the Belarusian authorities in July and had its website and all social-media accounts blocked. The television channel extensively covered mass protests following last year's presidential election.
According to the Belarusian Association of Journalists, 28 journalists are currently behind bars, including two from Belsat, Katsyaryna Andreyeva and Darya Chultsova, who were sentenced to two years in prison in February for their reporting on the protests.
The mass protests against Lukashenka were met with the heavy-handed, and sometimes violent detention of tens of thousands of people. Much of the opposition leadership has been jailed or forced into exile.
Vyasna says it considers 827 people to be political prisoners for exercising their basic rights to peacefully protest, express opinions, or engage in legitimate political activities.
Several protesters have been killed and thousands arrested during mass demonstrations demanding Lukashenka's resignation. There have also been what human rights groups call credible reports of torture in the crackdown.