Things to know in this story:
- Court hands down long jail term to opposition politician.
- Finds him guilty of organizing mass unrest.
- He denies wrongdoing, wife says it’s political revenge.
- Verdict part of long-running opposition crackdown.
A court in Belarus sentenced the opposition leader’s husband to 18 years in jail on Tuesday after he was arrested during an attempt to run for president against incumbent Alexander Lukashenko, a verdict his wife called political revenge.
The court found Syarhei Tsikhanouski, a 43-year-old video blogger, guilty of organizing mass unrest and of inciting social hatred, and handed him one of the longest jail terms in modern Belarusian history.
Tsikhanouski’s trial was closed to the public and lawyers were banned from disclosing details of the case.
His supporters said the charges were fabricated and politically motivated.
Syarhei, husband of opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, was arrested at an opposition protest in May last year after being barred from taking part in an election later that year, which his wife contested instead.
He sprung to prominence in Belarus after comparing Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, to a mustachioed cockroach from a children’s fairy tale.
His jailing angered many Belarusians who went on to stage the biggest protests against Lukashenko in post-Soviet history after what they said was a rigged presidential election, something he denied.
Tuesday’s harsh jail term is part of a pattern that has seen Lukashenko, who is supported by Russia, use the courts and the police to systematically repress his opponents and critics by locking them up for long periods or forcing them abroad.
“My husband … is sentenced to 18 years in prison,” his wife, Sviatlana who is based in Lithuania, said on Twitter.
“The dictator publicly takes revenge on his strongest opponents. While hiding the political prisoners in closed trials, he hopes to continue repressions in silence. But the whole world watches. We won’t stop,” she wrote.
My husband, Siarhei Tsikhanouski, is sentenced to 18 years in prison. The dictator publicly takes revenge on his strongest opponents. While hiding the political prisoners in closed trials, he hopes to continue repressions in silence. But the whole world watches. We won’t stop. ✊ <a href=”https://t.co/hdnHj8y6HZ”>pic.twitter.com/hdnHj8y6HZ</a>
Today, the so-called court in Belarus will deliver the sentence to Siarhei Tsikhanouski. I can imagine these numbers. But be it one year, or 20, or 100, – it is unacceptable. The only question I will ask myself is: what am I going to do with this? <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/StandWithBelarus?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#StandWithBelarus</a> <a href=”https://t.co/9BNLTLCquL”>pic.twitter.com/9BNLTLCquL</a>
Tsikhanouskaya fled to neighbouring Lithuania to escape a sweeping crackdown after the election last year. She has since gained prominence, meeting an array of Western leaders.
There was no immediate comment from Lukashenko, whose opposition crackdown and role in a migrant standoff with the European Union have triggered Western sanctions against his country.
Five supporters of Tsikhanouski were also tried along with him and sentenced to prison terms ranging from 14 to 16 years on Tuesday. They also denied the charges against them.
Julie Fisher, the U.S. Ambassador to Belarus, condemned the ruling and called for Tsikhanouski’s release.
“It is clear whom the regime most fears. The United States alongside our partners will continue efforts to secure the unconditional release of all political prisoners … and all those facing unjust detention and vengeful verdicts,” she tweeted.
Tsikhanouski’s mother Sofya told U.S. broadcaster RFE/RL she feared she would never see her son again.
“How many? Eighteen years for my son? What for? … God … I’m 71. I won’t live that long, I won’t see my son.”
35,000 have been detained arbitrarily, UN says
In July, a Belarusian court jailed former presidential contender Viktor Babariko for 14 years after convicting him on corruption charges he denied.
In September, Maria Kolesnikova, one of the leaders of mass street protests against Lukashenko last year, was sentenced to 11 years in prison.
UN Special Rapporteur Anaïs Marin said more than 35,000 people had been arbitrarily detained over the past year and that the fear of repression had caused tens of thousands of Belarusians to flee to seek refuge abroad.