Minsk: Belarus` authoritarian government further tightened the screws on dissent on Wednesday by shutting down two independent newspapers and sending another opposition leader to prison for two years.
The Information Ministry said the daily newspapers Nasha Niva and Narodnaya Volya were closed after receiving two or more warnings in the past year over their political coverage.
Opposition leader Dmitry Bondarenko was found guilty in court of organising an election-night rally in December to protest the results of the vote that extended the rule of President Alexander Lukashenko.
"This is no more than a reprisal against political opponents," Bondarenko told the court in his final statement.
Police violently dispersed the rally, which drew tens of thousands of protesters. Some 700 people were arrested, including seven presidential candidates.
Seven opposition figures have already been sentenced to jail terms of two to four years for their part in the protest. Ten more, including presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov, are still on trial.
The two newspapers had received warnings over their coverage of the bombing of the Minsk subway and for reporting suspicions that the government was behind the April 11 blast, which killed 14 people. The suspicions were so widely circulated that Lukashenko felt compelled to deny them in a televised address.
Investigators have arrested five suspects, but have said they do not know who ordered the bombing. Lukashenko has ordered investigators to question dissidents, adding to fears that the bombing is being used as a pretext to stamp out the last vestiges of political pluralism and dissent.
"Closing the largest independent newspapers, that`s a political order," said Nasha Niva editor Andrei Skurko.
Nasha Niva, the oldest newspaper in the country, dating back to 1906, has a circulation of 6,000 and receives 10,000 visitors to its website daily. Narodnaya Volya is larger, with a daily circulation of about 30,000.
The United States and European Union have imposed sanctions on Lukashenko`s government in response to the crackdown on the opposition.