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Prominent journalist goes on trial in Belarus on charges widely seen as politically motivated

TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — A prominent independent journalist went on trial in Belarus on Tuesday on extremism charges widely seen as politically motivated.

Ihar Karnei, who used to write for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and other independent news outlets, is accused of participating in an extremist group, which is punishable by up to six years in prison. RFE/RL, a U.S. government-funded broadcaster, has been designated extremist in Belarus, a common label for anyone who criticizes the government in the country where harsh crackdown on dissent continues unabated and working for it or spreading its content is a criminal offense.

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.

A total of 34 journalists are currently behind bars in Belarus, according to the Belarusian Association of Journalists.

Karnei was detained several times while covering the protests. Unlike many of his colleagues, he has remained in Belarus despite the crackdown. He was arrested again in July 2023, his apartment was raided, with police seizing phones and computers, and the authorities eventually charged him with taking part in an extremist group.

"Karnei's case shows both the degree of danger and the degree of absurdity of the charges, when a journalist in Belarus is tried for a job done professionally —- for spreading objective information,” said Andrei Bastunets, the leader of the Belarusian Association of Journalists. “The authorities have introduced severe censorship and Belarus today has become one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists.”

Diplomats from seven Western nations, including Germany, Sweden, Poland and the U.K., on Monday went to the courthouse in Minsk where the first hearing in Karnei's trial was taking place and demanded the release of the journalist, as well as other political prisoners.

“Over the past 46 months, the authorities in Belarus wrongfully arrested tens of thousands. A large number of political prisoners are reported to have life-threatening conditions and severe illnesses while proper medical care is denied to them,” the diplomats said in a statement.

Belarus' most prominent and oldest rights group, Viasna, has counted 1,406 political prisoners in a country of 9.5 million. Among them is Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ales Bialiatski, founder of Viasna.