Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya says that by prosecuting journalists the authorities in Belarus are sending a message to the media: "Either you're with the regime, or you're in jail."
Tsikhanouskaya made the comments during an exclusive, wide-ranging video interview with Current Time on February 18, the same day that a judge in Minsk sentenced two journalists to two years in prison each for reporting live from a rally in the capital in November.
Katsyaryna Andreyeva, 27, and Darya Chultsova, 23, have repeatedly rejected the charge that they "organized public events aimed at disrupting civil order" while covering the rally commemorating the death of an antigovernment protester.
The two work for Belsat, a Poland-based satellite television station that covers Belarus, and say the case against them is politically motivated since their only reason to be at the rally was to do their job as reporters.
"What is happening cannot be called either a fair trial or a fair investigation. Therefore, it is painful for all people that such sentences are handed down," said Tsikhanouskaya, who believes she was the rightful winner of the presidential election in Belarus in August.
"This applies not only to Darya [Chultsova] and Katsyaryna [Andreyeva], but also to all the others, both political prisoners and those who are in prison.
"You know, this is a message to journalists: either you're with the regime, or you're in jail," said Tsikhanouskaya, who went into exile abroad over fears she would be arrested and separated from her children amid mass protests against the results of the election, which long-serving leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka claimed to have won by a landslide.
The European Union and rights watchdogs have criticized the sentences against Andreyeva and Chultsova as part of an ongoing crackdown against independent media in Belarus.
The crackdown began during the run-up to the election and has heightened as Belarusians continue to take to the streets to call for Lukashenka to step down and for a new vote to be held.
The anti-government protests have lived on despite the arrests of thousands of demonstrators, documented beatings by police, and raids against journalists, rights activists, and Lukashenka's political opposition.
"Everyone understands that it is impossible to return to the life that we lived before this level of violence that we saw from the state," Tsikhanouskaya told Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. "No one will forgive Lukashenka for these crimes, and Lukashenka will never become legitimate in the eyes of Belarusians. People do not trust him."
Tsikhanouskaya -- who decided to run for president after her husband, Syarhey Tsikhanouski, was jailed after expressing interest in taking part in the August election against Lukashenka -- also addressed the ongoing trial of former banker Viktar Babaryka.
Babaryka, a would-be candidate who was once seen as Lukashenka's toughest rival, was detained in July and barred from competing in the election on embezzlement charges that his supporters say were trumped up.
Tsikhanouskaya said the charges dating back more than a decade when Babaryka headed Belgazprombank were "fabricated" and "absolutely political."
"In 2020, when he expressed his desire to run for president, it all surfaced," she said. "Previously, no one cared, before everyone was happy with everything. And now all of a sudden so many accusations were made against him."
Tsikhanouskaya said that "maximum publicity" of the treatment of Lukashenka's opponents and imprisonment of demonstrators could help them.
"The attention of the whole world to our problems, to our movement for rights, for a new Belarus, will force the world community to put more pressure on the regime, talk about justice, talk about lawlessness, and thus try to help Belarusians cope with our problem."
As for her personal situation, Tsikhanouskaya said she has not spoken to her husband since October, right after Lukashenka spoke with him and other opposition representatives at a pretrial detention center.
"Syarhey has been in jail for nine months now," she said. "He holds on. He is very strong, he is very brave. He will never deviate from his principles."
The couple's son, she said, knows that his father is in jail and is old enough to "understand that it hurts me, and I know that it hurts him, and we often talk about his dad."
Their daughter, Tsikhanouskaya said, thinks her father is on a business trip.
"We cannot return to Belarus, because of the coronavirus," Tsikhanouskaya said. "So far, such a fairy tale comes to her. We very often watch videos showing her dad so that his image does not fade from memory."