TALLINN, Estonia — A prominent journalist in Belarus was sentenced Wednesday to six years in prison, the latest step in a years-long crackdown on opposition figures, independent journalists and human rights activists.
On trial in the city of Grodno in western Belarus, Pavel Mazheika, 45, was found guilty of “complicity in extremist activity” for covering the activities of the political opposition.
He was accused of working for news outlets including Belsat TV, which broadcasts in Belarusian from its base in neighboring Poland. The Belarusian authorities have labeled Belsat as “extremist.”
Lawyer Yuliya Yurhilevich also was sentenced to six years in prison after she was accused of giving Mazheika information on Belarus’ political prisoners, notably on dissident artist Ales Pushkin who died in a Belarusian prison earlier this month.
Yurhilevich, 42, who practiced law for almost 18 years and defended human rights activists, was stripped of her license in February 2022.
“This is not a trial, but a theater of the absurd - a journalist and a lawyer are being tried for disseminating information,” Mazheika said during the trial.
Mazheika is a well-known figure in Belarus. In 2002, he was sentenced to two years in jail for “slandering the president,” before becoming press secretary for presidential candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich in 2006.
Mazheika has since worked for leading independent news outlets in both Belarus and Poland, hosting several shows and acting as executive director for Belsat TV.
The journalist has spent 11 months behind bars since his arrest in August 2022. Earlier, Mazheika said that during his detention he was severely beaten by law enforcement officers, and accused them of trying to gouge out his eye.
Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya is among those who have condemned Mazheika’s and Yurhilevich’s sentencing.
“Today, brave journalist Pavel Mazheika and lawyer Yulia Yurhilevich were sentenced to six years in prison in another mockery of justice in Belarus," she said. “This is a blatant attack on those who dare to speak the truth. Journalists and lawyers are persecuted for carrying out their profession."
Journalists and activists in Belarus have faced large-scale repression since the August 2020 vote that handed a sixth term to President Alexander Lukashenko. Following the election, which was rejected as fraudulent by the opposition and the West, Belarus was swept by massive protests, some of which drew more than 100,000 people.
Authorities responded with a brutal crackdown. More than 35,000 people were arrested, thousands were beaten by police while in custody, and dozens of nongovernmental organizations and independent media outlets were shut down.
Some 1,481 recognized political prisoners are currently behind bars in Belarus, according to the Viasna human rights center.