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Belarus sentences opposition leader’s husband to 18 years in prison

Belarusian dissident Siarhei Tsikhanouski
Dissident Belarusian blogger Siarhei Tsikhanouski, the husband of exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, was sentenced to 18 years in prison.
(Sergei Grits / Associated Press)

A court in Belarus on Tuesday sentenced the husband of the country’s exiled opposition leader to 18 years in prison, six months after the trial began behind closed doors.

The charges against Siarhei Tsikhanouski included organizing mass unrest and inciting hatred, and have been widely seen as politically motivated. Five other opposition activists were sentenced to prison terms of 14 to 16 years.

Tsikhanouski, 43, a popular video blogger and activist, planned to challenge authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko in the August 2020 presidential election. Tsikhanouski was widely known for the anti-Lukashenko slogan “Stop the cockroach.” He was arrested in May 2020, two days after he declared his candidacy.

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His wife, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, ran in his stead, drawing tens of thousands of supporters to rallies during the campaign. Official results of the vote handed Lukashenko a landslide victory and a sixth term in office, but were denounced by the opposition and the West as a sham.

The results triggered a months-long wave of unprecedented mass protests, the largest of which saw some 200,000 people taking to the streets of the capital, Minsk. Lukashenko’s government unleashed a violent crackdown on the demonstrators, arresting more than 35,000 and brutally beating thousands.

Under pressure from authorities, Tsikhanouskaya fled to Lithuania a day after the vote. Other key opposition figures have also left the country, and some have ended up behind bars.

The European Union has awarded its top human rights prize to the opposition movement in Belarus and its leader, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.

In recent months, pressure has mounted on Belarus’ nongovernmental organizations, activists and journalists, with the authorities regularly conducting mass raids and detentions of those they suspect of supporting the anti-government protests. The majority of independent media outlets and rights groups in Belarus have now been shut down.

Commenting on the verdict in her husband’s case, Tsikhanouskaya told the Associated Press that “the dictator publicly retaliates against his strongest opponents — they’re being repressed for their desire to live in a free Belarus.

“We will not stop and will continue the fight with the dictatorship in the center of Europe,” Tsikhanouskaya, who is raising the couple’s two children, added. “I don’t have the right to tell my children that they won’t see their father for so many years, because I don’t believe it myself.”

Tsikhanouski has already spent 20 months behind bars. His trial was shrouded in secrecy, with court hearings held behind closed doors and lawyers bound by nondisclosure agreements.

The European Union is expanding sanctions against Belarus to include airlines, travel agents and individuals who help lure migrants to the EU border.

State media showed a tired-looking Tsikhanouski being led into the closed hearing along with other defendants, including Mikola Statkevich, who ran against Lukashenko in 2010 and was sentenced to six years in prison after demonstrations broke out following that election. Statkevich was arrested again in May 2020 and on Tuesday was sentenced to 14 years in prison.

Another popular blogger who stood trial alongside Tsikhanouski, 29-year-old Ihar Losik, was handed a 15-year sentence. Losik was holding a hunger strike in jail to protest his prosecution.

Julie Fisher, the U.S. ambassador to Belarus, said on Twitter that “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, including Siarhei Tsikhanouski, Ihar Losik and all those facing unjust detention and vengeful verdicts,” Fisher wrote.


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