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Belarus opposition leader is sentenced to 18 years in prison

By Ivan Nechepurenko


A court in Belarus on Tuesday convicted an opposition leader on charges of organizing mass unrest and inciting social hatred over his attempt to challenge the country’s authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashenko, in a presidential election last year. It also sentenced him to 18 years in prison.


The activist, Sergei Tikhanovsky, 43, ran a popular YouTube channel in Belarus before announcing his candidacy before the 2020 vote. But he was arrested before the election, an act that prompted his wife, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, to step in and lead the popular movement against Lukashenko.


After months of closed hearings, a court in the city of Gomel, Tikhanovsky’s hometown, confirmed that it had rendered its verdict Tuesday. He was on trial along with five other defendants, including Nikolai Statkevich, 65, who ran against Lukashenko in the 2010 presidential election. The five other defendants were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 14 to 16 years.


Ever since mass protests set off by Lukashenko’s reelection for a sixth term as president in August 2020 — a vote widely regarded as rigged — the Belarusian leader has unleashed a campaign of political oppression unseen in Europe for decades. Thousands of people, including opposition leaders, protesters and those who subscribed to independent media outlets, have been detained. Rights groups regard hundreds of them as political prisoners.


In July, a Belarusian court convicted another presidential hopeful, Viktor Babariko, on corruption charges and sentenced him to 14 years in prison. A former head of a Russian state-owned bank, Babariko led the polls before the 2020 vote but was arrested weeks before election day. He has denied the charges.


In September, Maria Kolesnikova, one of the leaders of the protest movement that followed the election, was sentenced to 11 years in prison after law enforcement officers failed to push her out of the country. She is now leading the movement against Lukashenko from exile in Lithuania.


In a video statement released before the verdict, Tikhanovskaya vowed “to continue to defend the person I love, who has become a leader for millions of Belarusians.” She added, “I will try to do something very difficult, perhaps impossible, in order to bring closer the moment when we will see him in the new Belarus.”

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