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An imprisoned journalist in Belarus designated a political prisoner by a leading rights group

TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — A prominent journalist in Belarus was designated a political prisoner on Tuesday by the country's leading human rights group following his conviction on charges widely seen as part of an ongoing crackdown on dissent.

Ihar Karnei, who used to write for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and other news outlets, was handed a three-year prison sentence on Friday on charges of participation in an extremist group.

Karnei is a member of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, or BAJ, the country's top independent journalist group championing freedom of speech that has been branded extremist by authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko's government.

During his trial, Belarusian authorities accused Karnei of cooperation with BAJ to publish “materials insulting the head of state and representatives of the government.”

“This is not a sentence to Karnei, but to the government that throws journalists behind bars just for professionally doing their job,” BAJ head Andrei Bastunets said. “We are urging all journalists of the world to show solidarity with their Belarusian colleagues who have faced the toughest crackdown on freedom of speech in Europe.”

Karnei is one of 34 Belarusian journalists who are in prison serving their sentences or awaiting trial.

RFE/RL, a U.S. government-funded broadcaster for which Karnei worked, also has been designated extremist in Belarus, a common label for Lukashenko’s critics.

The Viasna human rights center, Belarus' oldest and most prominent rights group, classified Karnei as a political prisoner, criticizing his conviction and sentencing as “part of a deliberate policy by the authorities to limit the dissemination of uncensored information in the country and an attack on freedom of expression.”

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists denounced the verdict against Karnei as “a typical example of the expediency and arbitrariness of the sentences handed down to independent journalists in the country” and demanded the immediate release of Karnei and other jailed Belarusian journalists.

Journalists and activists in Belarus have faced large-scale repression since the August 2020 vote that handed a sixth term to Lukashenko and was rejected as fraudulent by the opposition and the West. Belarusian authorities have responded to huge protests triggered by the vote with a brutal crackdown that saw more than 35,000 people arrested and thousands beaten by police. Dozens of nongovernmental organizations and independent media outlets were shut down.

Karnei was detained several times while covering the protests. Unlike many of his colleagues who left the country, he has remained in Belarus despite the crackdown. He has been in custody since his arrest in July.

Belarus has more than 1,400 political prisoners, according to Viasna, including its founder, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ales Bialiatski.