(Moscow) A Minsk court sentenced two leaders of the independent news site Tut.by to 12 years in prison on Friday, in the midst of a wave of repression orchestrated in Belarus by the regime of Alexander Lukashenko.

According to the specialized NGO Viasna, the site’s editor-in-chief Marina Zolotova, 45, and its general manager Lyoudmila Tchekina, 54, were sentenced after a closed trial that lasted more than two months.

“The verdict targeting our colleagues is a cruel revenge for having transmitted with [their media] Tut.by the truth to Belarusians”, reacted the Belarusian Association of Journalists, in a press release.

Marina Zolotova and Lioudmila Tchekina were notably accused of tax evasion and incitement to social hatred, charges described as “absurd” by the NGO Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

The two women appeared at the verdict in the glass cage reserved for the defendants, smiling shyly, according to images published Friday by state media Belta.

They were arrested in May 2021 and have since been behind bars.

Two journalists and a lawyer from Tut.by, who fled Belarus, are also tried separately.

For weeks, the Tut.by site had covered this protest which gathered tens of thousands of people in the streets of Minsk and other cities to denounce the highly contested re-election of Alexander Lukashenko, in power for three decades.

Tut.by had been branded “extremist” by authorities and blocked in Belarus in 2021. But several of its journalists who left Belarus relaunched the site under a new name, Zerkalo (“mirror,” in Russian).

” We are proud of you. Your integrity and perseverance are an example for all of us,” Zerkalo reporters said in a post on their site Friday, ahead of the verdict.

“We are proud to continue your work, giving Belarusians real information,” they added.

Several opponents and leading civil society figures have been sentenced to heavy prison terms in recent months.

In early March, exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya was sentenced in absentia to 15 years in prison, following a trial she described as a judicial “farce”.

A few days earlier, activist Ales Bialiatski, co-winner of the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize and figure of the democracy movement in Belarus where he still is, had been sentenced to 10 years in prison.

According to the Belarusian human rights organization Viasna, Belarus had 1,461 political prisoners as of March 1.

The West imposed heavy sanctions in Belarus for the crackdown on the 2020 protests, but Mr Lukashenko’s regime still enjoys Moscow’s unwavering support.