Reporters Without Borders condemned prison sentences handed down against two Russian journalists simply for covering a demonstration marking the anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
The worldwide press freedom organisation urged the Belarus interior minister to release them immediately and to drop charges against them.
Alexei Ametov of the weekly Rossisky newsweek and Mikhail Romanov of the daily Moskovsky Komsomolets, were arrested in Minsk on 26 April while covering an opposition-organised protest on the 19th anniversary of the Chernobyl explosion in neighbouring Ukraine.
Around 500 people had gathered in front of the presidential palace to hand in a petition to President Alexander Lukashenko for children from Belarus to be allowed to travel abroad for treatment. Demonstrators were also protesting against government policy that people should return to live in the contaminated region.
For failing to have Belarus foreign ministry accreditation the two journalists were sentenced behind closed doors on 27 April by the Leninsky and Tsentralny courts in Minsk, to respectively ten and eight days in prison. They were charged with "violation of procedure in connection with demonstrations and strikes (Article 167 of the administrative code). Both journalists are serving their sentences in Okrestina jail in Minsk.
"The state of press freedom is so critical in Belarus that it calls for intervention from democratic countries", Zhanna Litvina, President of the Belarus Association of Journalists (BAJ) told Reporters Without Borders, its partner organisation.
As well as the two Russian journalists, more than 30 other people from Belarus, Ukraine and Russia were sentenced to prison terms ranging from eight days to two weeks. "It's the first time that such a large number of foreigners have been arrested and sentenced in Belarus. It's a sign of the regime's fear of the internationalisation of the Belarus question and the help that the opposition can receive from abroad", Vladimir Labkovich, head of the human rights organisation Vesna told AFP.
Based in London, we are an informal group dedicated to supporting democracy and human rights throughout
the former Soviet Union. Our aims are:
Informing the public about issues in this area that receive little coverage in the Western media.
Staging peaceful demonstrations and letter-writing campaigns in support of specific causes.
Supporting and publicising nonviolent pro-democracy groups throughout the region.
Encouraging European and American involvement.
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