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The three defendants appear in court for the beginning of their trial on December 18.

MINSK -- The prosecutor in the trial of three Belarusian journalists charged with illegal entrepreneurship and inciting ethnic hatred has asked a court in Minsk to hand suspended sentences to the defendants, which would spare them from prison.

Prosecutor Alyaksandr Karol asked the Minsk city court on January 22 to find freelance journalists Yury Paulavets, Dzmitry Alimkin, and Syarhey Shyptenka guilty and hand each of them a suspended prison sentence of five years.

The three defendants have 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 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 part of a "union state" established in the 1990s, though it exists mostly on paper.

Wariness about Moscow's intentions toward its neighbors has risen since Russia seized Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and began supporting Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, where the ensuing war has killed more than 10,300 people.

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.

Regnum is an online news outlet that covers events in Russia and other former Soviet republics.

A fourth defendant in the 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.

Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny (file photo)

A court in Moscow has ordered the closure of a foundation that has been the bulwark of opposition politician Aleksei Navalny's presidential campaign, citing its use of the virtual currency Bitcoin and other violations.

The Meshchansky district court issued the ruling on January 22 after the Justice Ministry earlier this month filed a lawsuit with the court seeking to shutter the Fifth Season Foundation.

The ministry argued that the foundation had broken the law by providing a false address for its permanent administrative body, failing to register some of its structures, and financial misdeeds. That includes the foundation's alleged effort to solicit financial donations using the virtual currency Bitcoin, whose legal status in Russia remains ambiguous.

Navalny's campaign chief, Leonid Volkov, called the order baseless. He said he himself had gathered bitcoin donations but had converted them into rubles and given them to the foundation, which he asserted was legal.

"We have 30 days to appeal. We will use all of" that time, Volkov said in an interview with Current Time TV, the Russian-language TV network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with Voice of America. "That is, we will work until March just as we've been working, because the court's ruling has not entered into force."

Navalny, an anticorruption crusader and vocal opponent of President Vladimir Putin, has campaigned for the March 18 election for over a year despite warnings -- confirmed by a formal decision in December -- that he would be barred from the ballot due to a criminal conviction. He and his supporters say the criminal prosecution was fabricated.

Putin, who has been president or prime minister since 1999, is seeking a new six-year term in the election.

Navalny has responded to his disqualification by calling on Russians to boycott the election, and seeking to organize nationwide protests on January 28 in support of the boycott. Moscow authorities have denied Navalny permission to hold a march down a central Moscow street and a rally near the Kremlin, proposing a site on the outskirts of the city instead.

Volkov said in November that the Fifth Season Foundation was the legal entity that officially employs workers of Navalny's campaign offices across Russia, receives financial contributions from supporters, and concludes lease agreements and other deals on behalf of Navalny's campaign.

Kremlin critics contend that most of the other candidates are being used as window-dressing in an election that Putin is certain to win in Russia's tightly controlled political environment.

Digital currencies like Bitcoin have exploded in popularity in Russia. Authorities have treated them as illegal because they are issued by non-state-approved institutions; they are generated by computer algorithms.

Finance Minister Anton Siluanov, however, said last year that the existence of such currencies had to be accepted.

Cryptocurrencies began to appear in the late 2000s as a way to offer a secure, digital method to conduct financial transactions. They have been dogged by doubts, and a more than 700 percent rise this year in the market capitalization of digital coins to $150 billion has exacerbated those concerns.

With reporting by Current Time TV, Interfax, and TASS

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"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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