MOSCOW: Belarus on Friday handed long jail terms to senior staff of the country's largest independent news site, which was forced to shutter after historic demonstrations against strongman Alexander Lukashenko.

The verdicts are the latest in a years-long crackdown targeting journalists, opposition figures and activists who questioned Lukashenko's claim he won a sixth presidential term in 2020.

A court in the capital Minsk sentenced the editor-in-chief of the portal, Marina Zolotova, 45, and general director Lyudmila Chekina, 54, to 12 years behind bars.

The women faced a raft of charges including tax evasion -- which critics say is regularly used as a pretext to silence dissent -- and “incitement to hatred”.

The Belarusian Association of Journalists condemned the verdict as “cruel revenge for the truth”.

The proceedings are linked to massive rallies that broke out against Lukashenko after the August 2020 vote and the brutal crackdown he instigated against perceived critics of his nearly 30-year rule.

For instance, Belarus this month handed a 10-year jail term to Nobel Prize winner and rights activist Ales Bialiatski drawing international outrage.

Thousands of people were detained during the rallies, hundreds claimed mistreatment in detention and nearly all opposition figures have since been exiled or jailed.

That crackdown expanded to journalists and in the push against opposition voices’s offices were raided. The media group was declared an “extremist organisation” in mid-2022 and shuttered.

Zolotova and Chekina were both detained in May 2021 alongside 13 colleagues. Their homes were raided as well.

'Integrity and resilience'

The Reporters Without Borders advocacy group has dismissed the charges against the women as “absurd” and pointed to the fact that court proceedings happened behind closed doors.

Some of the network's staff fled the country fearing reprisals -- including to Ukraine -- and re-started operations under the name Zerkalo which means mirror in Russian.

Its staff abroad have not revealed their identities for fear of bringing their family members remaining in the country to the attention of law enforcement.

“Mila, Marina, we are proud of you. Your integrity and resilience are an example to us all,“ Zerkalo staff said ahead of the verdict.

“We will continue your work: telling Belarusian people the real news, no matter what.”

Belarus also jailed two other perceived government critics on Friday, including political analyst and website editor Valeria Kostyugova who was handed 10 years in prison.

She was sentenced at the same time as Tatyana Kuzina, who founded a school of public administration and was also handed a 10-year term.

Both were accused to inciting hatred, undermining national security and supporting acts to topple the government.

Opposition leader Maria Kolesnikova, who was jailed for 11 years in 2021, was briefly admitted to intensive care in December before being returned to prison.

She was part of a trio of women -- along with Veronika Tsepkalo and Svetlana Tikhanovskaya -- who spearhead the massive rallies.

Tsepkalo and Tikhanovskaya, who has been sentenced to 15 years in jail in absentia, are living in exile. - AFP