Belarus hands investigative reporter 8-year prison sentence

TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — A court in Belarus on Wednesday sentenced a prominent investigative journalist to eight years in prison, the latest move in a sweeping crackdown on independent media by the Belarusian authorities.

Siarhei Satsuk, the chief editor of the Yezhednevnik popular online outlet, investigated corruption in the Belarusian leadership and covered the mass protests that raged in the country for months in 2020.

The Belarusian Association of Journalists said Satsuk was convicted on charges of accepting a bribe, abuse of office and inciting hatred — all which his defense team rejected as unfounded.

Concluding a trial that was held behind closed doors, the court ruled that the journalist must serve eight years in a maximum security prison and pay a fine of roughly $6,000, as well as about $5,000 in damages.

Satsuk’s outlet has actively covered protests which were ignited by the August 2020 presidential election that the opposition and the West rejected as rigged. Belarus’ authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko, who received a sixth term in the vote, responded by unleashing a sweeping crackdown on protesters that saw more than 35,000 people arrested and thousands beaten by police.

The 54-year-old journalist was arrested in December 2021 and has remained behind bars ever since. The Belarusian authorities blocked Yezhednevnik, which ran high-profile investigative reports alleging corruption in the healthcare system, on the day of the journalist’s arrest.

Satsuk had said that he received threats over his investigative reporting. In a written statement he passed on to other journalists shortly before his arrest, Satsuk said that “in Belarus, a person’s life and a person’s freedom doesn’t cost anything, it’s easier for (the authorities) to (organize) a hit on a person than acknowledge corruption schemes.”

Human rights advocates have declared Satsuk a political prisoner, one of over 1,300.

“The Belarusian Association of Journalists is convinced that the law enforcement bodies and the court arbitrarily used criminal prosecution against Satsuk, trying to carry out revenge against the journalist for his high-profile investigations,” said the group’s statement. It demanded that the journalist be released and his conviction overturned.

Independent journalists were the first to face the government’s crackdown. Many were either arrested by the security service or fled the country. A total of 32 reporters are currently behind bars, either awaiting trial or serving their sentences, according to the Belarusian Association of Journalists.

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