Mother of 5 Gets 4 Years in Belarus Prison, Charged with Creating 'Extremist Group'

An activist and mother of five children was previously charged with creating an "extremist group" in Belarus and was sentenced on Friday to serve four years in prison.

Volha Zalatar, 38, was a neighborhood activist who created a local group on Telegram, a messaging platform. She moderated the group on the app and orchestrated concerts, parties and walks after the August 2020 presidential election ended in Belarus.

Belarusian authorities said the activities Zalatar organized were deemed as "unsanctioned mass gatherings" then accused her of starting an "extremist organization", the AP reported.

Zalatar was arrested while she was taking one of her children, her 10-year-old daughter, to music school. She was additionally charged with "gross violation of public order" and "disobeying legal requirements of authorities."

Other chats on the app Telegram have been flagged as being extremists. According to authorities, some 300 chats have been marked.

If the owners of the chats are found guilty and convicted they could be sentenced up to seven years in prison.

Zalatar said she rejected all accusations made against her. "My heart is torn into pieces, the degree of hatred is growing, the amount of pain and resentment is increasing," she said in court.

"Normal human actions, reactions and feelings are criminalized," she added.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Belarus, Volha Zalatar, Prison
A Belarus court has sentenced Volha Zalatar to four years in prison for creating an "extremist group" on the messaging app Telegram, the country's top rights group, Viasna, reported. Zalatar, a 38-year old mother of five underaged children, has been held in custody since March. Above, Zalatar in Minsk, Belarus. Human Rights Center "Viasna" Photo

Since last year's election, Lukashenko's government has shut down the majority of independent media outlets and rights groups.

On Friday, authorities designated the social media pages of RFE/RL's Belarus service as extremist. The news outlet "adamantly rejects" the label and considers it "ridiculous," RFE/RL President Jamie Fly said in a statement.

Earlier this week, Belarusian authorities raided the homes of dozens of journalists and activists across nine cities, seizing their phones and computers and taking them in for questioning after the searches. Law enforcement officials targeted those believed to have funded anti-government protests and spread information deemed extremist.

According to human rights advocates, a total of 896 political prisoners are currently behind bars in Belarus, including Zalatar and top opposition activists.

Zalatar's husband also spent 10 days in jail for displaying the Belarusian opposition's red-and-white flag in the window of their apartment.

Belarusian authorities have waged a multi-pronged crackdown on dissent in the year since President Alexander Lukashenko won a sixth term in an election that the opposition and the West denounced as a sham. In response to mass protests, police arrested more than 35,000 people and beat thousands of demonstrators.

Volha Zalatar, Prison, Belarus
Authorities are investigating 300 chats that were flagged as extremists. Above, this undated handout photo released by Human Rights Center "Viasna" on December 3, 2021, shows Belarussian activist Volha Zalatar, second right, with her husband Sergei Gankevich and their children in Minsk, Belarus. Human Rights Center "Viasna" Photo