Belarus: Opposition leader Tikhanovsky jailed for 18 years over protests

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Sergei TikhanovskyImage source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Sergei Tikhanovsky was arrested in March 2020, months before a presidential election which he planned to contest

A Belarusian opposition leader who rallied mass protests against disputed leader Alexander Lukashenko has been jailed for 18 years.

Sergei Tikhanovsky was convicted of organising riots among other charges following a trial condemned as a sham.

He planned to challenge Mr Lukashenko in the 2020 presidential election, but was detained before the vote.

His wife, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, took on Mr Lukashenko, who claimed victory in the widely discredited poll.

She claimed victory herself in the August election but, fearing for her safety, was forced into exile with her children the next day.

On Tuesday, Ms Tikhanovskaya questioned the validity of the court that tried her husband and told the BBC his sentence amounted to "personal revenge" by Mr Lukashenko.

The US and Germany also voiced outrage at the verdicts against Tikhanovsky and other opposition figures.

Media caption,

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya: The regime is afraid of my husband

"While hiding the political prisoners in closed trials, he hopes to continue repressions in silence. But the whole world watches. We won't stop," Ms Tikhanovskaya wrote in a tweet.

Ahead of the verdict, she said she would keep "defending the person I love" in a Twitter video, which showed children's drawings in the background.

The 39-year-old is a former teacher who was a stay-at-home mother until she entered the political fray in Belarus and became a pro-democracy icon. She now lives in exile in Lithuania.

Belarusian state news agency Belta said the verdict was delivered at a court in the south-eastern city of Gomel on Tuesday.

A popular YouTube blogger, Tikhanovsky, 43, was convicted of organising mass unrest, inciting hatred and other charges following a months-long trial behind closed doors.

State newspaper Sovetskaya Belarus said five other opposition figures tried alongside Tikhanovsky were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 14 to 16 years:

  • Veteran opposition politician Mikola Statkevich was sentenced to 14 years in prison
  • Opposition bloggers Igor Losik and Vladimir Tsyganovich were jailed for 15 years
  • Artyom Sakov and Dmitry Popov, associates of Tikhanovsky, were given 16 years.

Opposition crushed

They are the latest opposition figures to be jailed in Belarus following a brutal crackdown on dissenting voices who challenged Alexander Lukashenko's election win.

All of his prominent opponents have either been jailed or forced to flee the country.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said she was appalled by Tuesday's "scandalous verdicts" while US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the European Union condemned the repression of individuals by Belarus.

Mr Lukashenko has ruled Belarus since 1994 but his re-election as president last year was deemed illegitimate and not recognised by Western countries.

He defied months of protests last year as opposition politicians and activists were arrested and held in prison, where some were allegedly beaten and tortured.

Tikhanovsky is now one of hundreds of political prisoners thought to be held in Belarusian jails. Among them is protest organiser Maria Kolesnikova, who was found guilty of crimes including plotting to seize power and jailed for 11 years in September.

Another opposition leader and former banker, Viktor Babaryko, was sentenced to 14 years in prison on fraud charges in July.

In an interview in Minsk last month, the BBC's Moscow correspondent Steve Rosenberg asked Mr Lukashenko how many political prisoners were jailed in Belarus.

"We have no political crimes in law," Mr Lukashenko said. "We have no crimes that we've prosecuted under. These are people who have broken Belarusian law."

Without providing evidence, he suggested Ms Kolesnikova was an "agent" of the West and said she had been jailed because she "broke the law".

The crackdown severely strained relations between Belarus and the EU, which has imposed tough sanctions the country. The EU has since accused Belarus of orchestrating a migrant crisis on its eastern borders in revenge for sanctions.

Media caption,

WATCH: Highlights of the Belarus leader's exclusive interview with the BBC’s Steve Rosenberg