Belarusian law enforcement officers watch demonstrators in Minsk in November 2020. A Belarusian court sentenced journalist Vyacheslau Lazarau to 5.5 years in prison for allegedly facilitating extremism on September 25, 2023. (Reuters/Stringer)

Belarusian court sentences journalist Vyacheslau Lazarau to 5.5 years on extremism charges

New York, September 25, 2023—The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns a Belarusian court’s Monday sentencing of journalist Vyacheslau Lazarau to 5.5 years in prison for allegedly facilitating extremism.

“Vyacheslau Lazarau’s sentencing to 5.5 years in prison demonstrates how the country’s ‘extremist’ laws have become the most frequent tool the Belarusian authorities use to jail journalists for their independent reporting,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator. “Belarusian authorities must drop all charges against Lazarau, release him and other jailed journalists immediately, and repeal the country’s shameful extremism legislation.”

A court in the northeastern city of Vitebsk convicted Lazarau, a freelance camera operator who has covered local news, and also his wife, Tatsiana Pytko, who was sentenced to 3 years on charges of participating in an extremist formation, according to the banned human rights group Viasna. CPJ could not immediately determine whether Lazarau and Pytko plan to appeal their sentence.

The closed-door trial began on September 5. Authorities accused Lazarau of cooperating with the banned Poland-based independent broadcaster Belsat TV and claimed Pytko helped him.

Authorities detained Lazarau in February 2023 and Pytko in June after investigators examined the content of Lazarau’s computer and phone and observed his wife in some of the footage, according to the Belarusian Association of Journalists, an advocacy and trade group operating from exile.

Lazarau was previously detained in 2020 while documenting the protests against President Aleksandr Lukashenko, according to news reports and as CPJ documented at the time.

Belarus was the world’s fifth worst jailer of journalists, with at least 26 journalists behind bars on December 1, 2022, when CPJ conducted its most recent prison census.