MINSK -- A Belarusian court has convicted three journalists of hate crimes over articles they wrote for a Russian news agency, ruling that the stories risked inciting ethnic discord by belittling Belarus.
In a decision on February 2, the Minsk City Court sentenced Belarusians Yury Paulavets, Dzmitry Alimkin, and Syarhey Shyptenka to five years in prison but postponed the start of the sentences for three years.
The court released the three journalists from custody but ordered them to remain in Minsk.
The verdict and sentences were in line with what prosecutors had recommended at a hearing in January.
Paulavets, Alimkin, and Shyptenka, who were arrested in December 2016 and went on trial a year later, pleaded not guilty.
The charges stem from articles they contributed to the Russian news outlet Regnum in which they expressed pro-Russia views and promoted the idea of closer integration between Belarus and Russia.
In some of the articles, the authors described the Belarusian language as a Russian dialect and an attribute of "a lower cultural level."
The three were arrested in December 2016. Their trial began on December 18, 2017.
Belarus and Russia have close ties and are partners in a "union state" that was established in the 1990s but exists mostly on paper.
Wariness about Moscow's intentions toward its neighbors deepened after Russia seized Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and began supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine, where the ensuing war has killed more than 10,300 people since April 2014.
Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has strained ties with the West but now speaks frequently of the need to protect Belarus’s sovereignty against potential threats from the east -- meaning Russia.
Regnum is an online news outlet that covers events in Russia and other former Soviet republics.
A fourth defendant in the Belarusian case, Yury Baranchyk, is also a Belarusian citizen but is residing in Russia.
Russian authorities detained Baranchyk in March at Minsk's request, but refused to extradite him and later released him.