TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — A court in Belarus on Thursday sentenced a reporter for the now-closed local edition of one of Russia’s most popular newspapers to three years in prison for insulting the country’s authoritarian leader.
Hienadz Mazheyka was sentenced for a 2021 article in Komsomolskaya Pravda that cited an acquaintance of a man killed in a police raid as speaking favorably of him. The story angered President Alexander Lukashenko, who has suppressed opposition and criticism with increasing severity.
The man killed, an IT worker named Andrei Zeltsar, was shot when agents of the Belarusian KGB raided an apartment building in what was described as a search for terrorists. A KGB officer also died in the raid.
The story was taken down from the newspaper’s website quickly, but authorities blocked the website and Komsomolskaya Pravda later closed its Belarus operation. Mazheyka fled to Russia after the blockage, but was detained in Moscow and sent back to Belarus.
Russia has close ties with Belarus and stations troops and weapons there that have been used in the fighting in Ukraine.
Lukashenko has ruled Belarus since 1994 and his repression of opposition intensified after a monthslong wave of protests in 2020 following the presidential election that gave him a sixth term in office — which the West and Belarus’ opposition have denounced as a sham.
The Belarusian Association of Journalists says there are 36 journalists either imprisoned or in detention awaiting trial.
“The situation with free speech in Belarus is the worst in Europe and the retaliation against Mazheyka only confirms that,” said journalists’ association head Andrei Bastunets.