A Belarusian court has sentenced Ales Bialiatsky, Belarus’s top human rights defender and one of the winners of the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize, to 10 years in prison.
TALLINN, Estonia — A court on Friday sentenced Belarus’ top human rights defender and one of the winners of the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize to 10 years in prison, the latest move in a years-long crackdown on dissent that has swept the ex-Soviet country. Since 2020.
The harsh punishment of Ales Bialiatsky and three colleagues was carried out in response to mass protests over the 2020 elections that gave authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko a new term in office.
Lukashenko, a longtime ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin who backed Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, has ruled the ex-Soviet country with an iron fist since 1994. More than 35,000 people have been arrested and thousands beaten by police amid the protests, the largest ever. held in the country.
Belarus is such a remote country in its support for Russia’s year-old invasion that other countries in the region do not publicly support Moscow.
The center reported Friday that Bialiatsky and colleagues at the Center for Human Rights he founded were convicted of financing acts that violate public order and smuggling.
Valiansyn Stefanović was sentenced to nine years’ imprisonment; Uladzimir Labković, seven; Dmitry Slaviu was sentenced in absentia to eight years in prison.
During the trial, which took place behind closed doors, the 60-year-old Bialiatsky and his colleagues were kept in a cage inside the courtroom. They have spent a year and nine months behind bars since their arrest.
In photos from the courtroom released on Friday by Belarus’s official news agency Belta, Bialatsky, dressed in black, looked pale but calm.
The Viasna Center for Human Rights said after the verdict that the four activists asserted their innocence. Viasna means “spring” in Belarusian.
In his final speech to the court, Bialiatsky urged the authorities to “stop the civil war in Belarus”. He said that it had become clear to him from the case files that “the investigators were fulfilling their assigned mission: to deny liberty to Viasna human rights defenders at any cost, to destroy Viasna and to stop our work.”
Exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya called the verdict “appalling”.
“We must do everything we can to fight this shameful injustice (and) set them free,” Tsikhanouskaya wrote on Twitter on Friday.
Memorial, the prominent Russian human rights group that shared the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize with Bialiatsky and the Ukrainian Center for Civil Liberties, in an online statement denounced the ruling as “an undisguised and illegal reprisal for their human rights activities as part of a terrorist campaign against civil society and the entire people of Belarus.” .
Oleg Orlov, co-chair of Memorial, tried to fly to Minsk to support Bialyatski on Friday, but was denied boarding the plane, with airline representatives telling him Belarus had banned him from the country. “It is better to commit crimes without witnesses,” Orlov commented.
Volodymyr Yavorsky of the Center for Civil Liberties told the Associated Press that Ukrainian human rights advocates are expressing solidarity with Bialiatsky and calling for his release.
“This ruling shows that the highest level of repression in Europe is in Belarus,” Yavorsky said. “Ukraine is currently resisting the very totalitarian model that the Kremlin is trying to impose on the entire former Soviet space.”
The punishment also caused outrage in the West.
The Norwegian Helsinki Committee, a human rights NGO, said it was “shocked by the irony behind the rulings”.
German Foreign Minister Annalina Berbock described the trial and sentence as a “farce”.
“This is a daily disgrace like Lukashenko’s support for Putin’s war. We call for an end to political persecution and the release of over 1,400 political prisoners,” Berbock wrote on Twitter on Friday.
Condemnations of the ruling also came from the Council of Europe’s human rights watchdog and UN spokesperson for human rights.
Bialiatsky is the fourth person in the 121-year history of the Nobel Prizes to receive the prize while in prison or detention.
Associated Press writers Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark; Geir Molson in Berlin; Lorne Cook in Brussels and Jamie Keaton in Geneva contributed to this report.
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