In Belarus, 3 protest musicians are sentenced to long prison terms

TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — Members of a pop music group that became a symbol of protest in Belarus were sentenced Tuesday to prison terms of up to nine years in the country's relentless crackdown on dissent.

The Tor Band became widely known in Belarus during a wave of protests that arose in August 2020 following a disputed presidential election in which which Alexander Lukashenko was declared the winner, giving him a sixth term in office.

The protests lasted for months, the largest and most prolonged show of dissent since Lukashenko came to power in 1994 and began repressing independent news media and opposition.

Lukashenko unleashed harsh measures against the protesters, with police detaining some 35,000 people and beating thousands. Many major opposition figures fled the country, including Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who ran against him in the election. Others have been jailed, such as Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ales Bialiatski, founder of the human rights group Viasna.

The three members of the Tor Band were arrested in October 2022.

A court in the city of Homel on Tuesday found musicians guilty of four counts of inciting hatred, creating an extremist group, discrediting Belarus and insulting the president, Viasna reported.

Group leader Dzmitry Halavach was sentenced to nine years in prison, Yauhen Burlo to eight years and Andrey Yaremchyk to 7.5 years.

While in detention, the musicians’ health deteriorated sharply. Activists reported that Yauhen Burlo needed urgent surgery on his spine; he arrived at the trial on crutches and was unable to stand up when the verdict was announced.

Tsikhanouskaya condemned the sentences, calling the musicians “symbols of hope and resistance.”