Kyiv, Ukraine – The chief editor of a popular internet news site in one of Belarus’ largest cities was detained Sunday amid a crackdown on independent journalists and opponents of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko.
Police said they were investigating Hrodna.life editor Aliaksei Shota on suspicion of extremism.
The publication focuses on Belarus’ fifth-largest city, Grodno. City police said the website “posted information products that were duly recognized as extremist,” but didn’t give details. It wasn’t immediately clear if Shota had been formally charged with extremism, which can carry a prison sentence of up to 10 years.
Shota had collaborated with the country’s most popular internet portal Tut.by, which authorities closed this month after arresting 15 employees.
Belarus’ crackdown escalated a week ago with the arrest of dissident journalist Raman Pratasevich jand his girlfriend who were aboard a commercial flight that was diverted to the Minsk airport because of an alleged bomb threat. The flight was flying over Belarus en route from Athens, Greece, to Vilnius, Lithuania.
The move sparked wide denunciation in the West as an act of hijacking and demands for Pratasevich’s release. The European Union banned flights from Belarus.
Pratasevich is charged with organizing riots, a charge that carries a potential sentence of 15 years.
The day after his arrest, authorities released a brief video in which Pratasevich said he was confessing, but observers said the statement appeared to be forced.
The Belarusian human rights group Viasna said Sunday that Pratasevich had received a package from his sister but that an unspecified book had been taken from it.
Large protests broke out last August after a presidential election that officials said overwhelmingly gave a sixth term in office to Lukashenko, who has consistently repressed opposition since coming to power in 1994.
Police detained more than 30,000 people in the course of the protests, which persisted for months. Although protests died down during the winter, authorities have continued strong actions against opposition supporters and independent journalists.
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