Belarus sentences exiled opposition leader to 15 years

TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — A court in Belarus on Monday sentenced exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya to 15 years in prison after a trial in absentia on charges including conspiring to overthrow the government, the latest move in a months-long effort by the Belarusian government to suppress dissent.

Tsikhanouskaya ran against authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko in Aug. 2020, in an election that handed him his sixth term in office and was widely seen as rigged.

The results of the vote triggered the largest protests in the country's history. Lukashenko unleashed a brutal crackdown on demonstrators, accusing the opposition of plotting to overthrow the government, and Tsikhnouskaya left to Lithuania under pressure.

Other key politicians and activists were either arrested or pressured to leave the country.

Tsikhanouskaya and four other opposition figures were tried in their absence in the Belarusian capital, Minsk. The charges against them also included creating and leading an extremist group, inciting hatred and harming national security.

Another exiled opposition politician, Pavel Latushka, was sentenced to 18 years in prison. Maryya Maroz, Volha Kavalkova and Siarhei Dylevski were handed 12-year sentences.

All of them left Belarus after the protests erupted in August 2020. The demonstrations were the largest and the most sustained since Lukashenko assumed office in 1994. He has run the country with an iron fist ever since. His government unleashed a brutal crackdown against the protesters, detaining more than 35,000 and beating thousands.

The country’s most prominent human rights advocate and the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Ales Bialiatski, was among those arrested. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison last week.

Tsikhanouskaya ran against Lukashenko instead of her husband, popular opposition politician Siarhei Tsikhanouski who was arrested in the middle of his campaign in 2020 and has been sentenced to 18 years in prison.

Last month, a court in Belarus added 18 more months to Tsikhanouski’s sentence over alleged violations of prison regulations.

Tsikhanouski maintained his innocence during the trial that was held behind closed doors, according to the Viasna human rights center, Belarus’ most prominent rights group. For two months, the politician was held “in inhumane conditions” in an isolation cell, the group said.

Yuras Karmanau, The Associated Press