A prominent independent journalist went on trial in Belarus on Tuesday on extremism charges that are widely seen as politically motivated.

Ihar Karnei, who formerly wrote for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and other independent news channels, 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 labeled extremist in Belarus. This is a common term for anyone who criticizes the government in the country, where the crackdown on dissent continues unabated and working for them or distributing their content is a criminal offense.

Journalists and activists in Belarus have faced massive repression since the August 2020 vote that gave President Alexander Lukashenko a sixth term in office. After the election, which was rejected as fraudulent by the opposition and the West, there were massive protests in Belarus, some of which were attended by more than 100,000 people.

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The authorities responded with brutal crackdown. More than 35,000 people were arrested, thousands were beaten by police in custody, and dozens of non-governmental organizations and independent media outlets were shut down.

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

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko watches military exercises via video conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Russia, Saturday, Feb. 19, 2022. The Russian military announced massive exercises by its strategic nuclear forces on Friday.  Russian President Vladimir Putin will personally oversee Saturday's exercise, which will feature several practice launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles and cruise missiles, the Defense Ministry said.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko observes military exercises via video conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Russia, Saturday, Feb. 19, 2022. (Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin pool photo via AP)

Karnei was arrested several times while covering the protests. Unlike many of his colleagues, he remained in Belarus despite the crackdown. He was arrested again in July 2023, his home was searched, police confiscated phones and computers, and authorities ultimately accused him of membership in an extremist group.

“Karnei’s case shows both the extent of the danger and the extent of the absurdity of the accusations when a journalist in Belarus is accused of a job carried out professionally – for disseminating objective information,” said Andrei Bastunets, the chairman of the Belarusian Union of Journalists. “The authorities have introduced strict censorship and Belarus has now become one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists.”

Diplomats from seven Western nations, including Germany, Sweden, Poland and Britain, went to the courthouse in Minsk on Monday where the first hearing in Karnei’s trial was taking place, demanding the release of the journalist and other political prisoners.

“Over the past 46 months, authorities in Belarus have wrongly arrested tens of thousands. “A large number of political prisoners are reportedly suffering from life-threatening conditions and serious illnesses while being denied adequate medical care,” the diplomats said in a statement.

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

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