KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — A Belarussian court on Friday opened the trial of a journalist accused of revealing personal data in her report on the death of a protester, part of authorities' efforts to stifle protests against authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko.
Katsiaryna Barysevich of the independent Tut.by online news portal has been in custody since November, following the publication of an article in which she cited medical documents indicating that protester Raman Bandarenka died of severe injuries and wasn't drunk — contrary to the authorities' claim.
Bandarenka died in a hospital on Nov. 12 of brain and other injuries. The opposition alleged that he was brutally beaten by police who dispersed a protest in the Belarusian capital, Minsk. Bandarenka’s death caused public outrage and fueled more demonstrations.
Belarus has been rocked by protests ever since official results from the Aug. 9 presidential election gave Lukashenko a sixth term in office by a landslide. The opposition and some poll workers have said the election was rigged.
Lukashenko's government has responded with a sweeping crackdown on the demonstrations, the biggest of which attracted up to 200,000 people. Human rights activists say more than 30,000 people have been detained since the protests began, with thousands beaten.
The authorities denied that Bandarenka was beaten by police and claimed that he was drunk when detained.
Barysevich's report contested that assertion. She spoke to a doctor who treated Bandarenka and cited medical documents indicating that the protester had head wounds, a brain injury and multiple other injuries and no trace of alcohol in his blood. The doctor, Artsyom Sarokin, went on trial alongside Barysevich.
They face up to three years in prison if convicted on charges of revealing personal data, even though Bandarenka's mother had asked Barysevich to reveal the information about her son's condition.
Amnesty International has declared Barysevich and Sarokin prisoners of conscience.
The Moskovsky District Court in Minsk closed the trial for the public despite Barysevich's call to make it open.
“I want this trial to be open,” Barysevich said in a statement before the hearings. “For the first time, I would visit a court not as a journalist but as a defendant in a cage, but that doesn’t prevent me from believing in justice.”
In a separate move, the Justice Ministry ruled Friday to terminate licenses for four lawyers who have defended opposition leaders and activists, including Aliaksandr Pylchanka who represented jailed presidential hopeful Viktor Babariko and Lyudmila Kazak, the lawyer for opposition activist Maria Kalesnikava, who has been in custody since her arrest in September on charges of undermining state security.
The ministry said the lawyers were stripped of their licenses because they allegedly participated in unsanctioned protests, resisted police and insulted officials.
Pavel Sapelka, a lawyer with the Viasna human rights center, said the move marked the authorities' effort to punish the lawyers for defending the opposition figures. “Those lawyers had the professional courage to defend the opposition activists and the authorities took revenge on them,” Sapelka said.
Barysevich's trial opened a day after another two Belarusian journalists were convicted of violating public order and sentenced to two years in prison after they covered a protest against Lukashenko.
Katsiaryna Bakhvalava, who also goes by the last name of Andreyeva, and Daria Chultsova, both of the Polish-funded Belsat TV channel, were arrested in November after police broke down the door of a Minsk apartment where they doing a live stream of a demonstration in the Belarusian capital. They were convicted Thursday on charges of “organizing actions rudely violating public order” — accusations they denied.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Thursday that Washington remains alarmed by the Belarusian authorities' “continuing violent crackdown on peaceful protesters, pro-democracy activists, and journalists.”
“The United States continues to support international efforts to independently investigate electoral irregularities in Belarus, the human rights abuses surrounding the election, and the crackdown that has followed,” Blinken said in a statement announcing sanctions against 43 more Belarusian officials. "We stand with the brave people of Belarus and support their right to free and fair elections.”
Washington's move follows previous sanctions against scores of Belarusian officials introduced by the U.S. and the European Union.