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Belarus journalist jailed for 'facilitating extremism' after collecting data for human rights group

TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — A court in Belarus has sentenced a high-profile journalist to 3 1/2 years for “facilitating extremist activities” and “discrediting Belarus” after she provided data for a renowned human rights group, the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) said Thursday.

Larysa Shchyrakova — sentenced during a closed trial in the city of Gomel — will serve her sentence in a high-security penal colony and must pay a fine of 3,500 Belarusian rubles (about $1,100).

Belarusian authorities detained Shchyrakova in December 2022. Officials initially placed her son in a state orphanage before transferring custody to her ex-husband.

Shchyrakova, 50, is the latest in a string of journalists jailed in Belarus after covering the large-scale political repression that has rocked the country since its last presidential elections three years ago.

Large-scale protests erupted in Belarus in August 2020, when President Alexander Lukashenko was re-elected in a vote that both the opposition and the West have condemned as rigged. Authorities responded to the demonstrations with a violent crackdown that resulted in more than 35,000 arrests, with thousands of protestors beaten.

During proceedings, the state accused Shchyrakova of “collecting, creating, processing, storing and transmitting information” for Belarus’ leading human rights center, Viasna, as well as for television channel Belsat — which broadcasts in Belarusian from Poland.

Both Viasna and Belsat are considered “extremist” organizations by the Belarusian government.

“The verdict against Larysa Shchyrakova is another reprisal aimed at taking revenge upon journalists,” the Belarusian Association of Journalists said in a statement. “Shchyrakova is a professional reporter with years of experience, a human rights activist, and a cultural figure. Across the globe, these kinds of figures are usually given awards. In Belarus, they are persecuted — but journalism is not a crime.” Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya also condemned the court's decision.

“Today, my thoughts are with Larysa Shchyrakova, a journalist and mother," she said. "She’s been sentenced to 3 1/2 years simply for doing her job, torn away from her son. This brilliant woman is held as a political prisoner alongside 32 other journalists in Belarus. This shameful injustice must end.”

Some 33 Belarusian media workers are currently behind bars, either awaiting trial or serving prison sentences, according to the Association of Journalists.

Viasna has recorded 1,496 political prisoners in Belarus today, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Ales Bialiatski.