Presidential Challenger In Belarus Sentenced To 14 Years In Prison

(Photo by RAMIL NASIBULIN/BELTA/AFP via Getty Images)

Bradley Devlin General Assignment & Analysis Reporter
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Viktor Babariko, a political rival to the president of Belarus, has been sentenced to 14 years in prison by the nation’s highest court on charges many believe to be politically motivated.

Babariko was sentenced Tuesday to 14 years in prison and fined about $57,000 by the Belarusian Supreme Court after he was convicted of money laundering and taking a bribe, according to The Associated Press.

“I can’t plead guilty to the crimes I didn’t commit,” Babariko said to the court before the verdict was rendered, the AP reported. “I can tell you from that cage that I don’t feel ashamed for my life before the people I knew,” Babariko added.

Babariko, the former chief executive of Belgazprombank, a commercial bank owned by Russian natural gas company Gazprom, attempted to challenge Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko for the presidency last year, the AP reported. However, authorities arrested Babariko prior to the August 2020 presidential election, which prevented Babariko from registering as a candidate for the election. News of his arrest caused protests that numbered in the thousands.

Lukashenko was reelected to his sixth term as president in the August 2020 election, triggering protests as many believed the results to be rigged. The largest protest garnered a crowd of approximately 200,000 people, according to the AP. Authorities cracked down hard on the protests and arrested more than 35,000 individuals. Others at the protests were beaten by police, and opposition leaders were jailed or forced to flee Belarus.

After Babariko was jailed, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya became Lukashenko’s primary competition in the August 2020 election, according to the AP. She condemned the sentence brought against Babariko as a “mad sentence to the person who decided to enter politics and became one of the leaders who woke the country up from a long sleep,” the AP reported.

“The regime is doing all that in order to kill any thoughts even distantly resembling faith and hope,” Tsikhanouskaya also said, the AP noted, “But the hope in our hearts is something that is the most precious for Viktor and thousands of other innocent people in prisons.”

After the election, Tsikhanouskaya was forced to leave Belarus under pressure from the government, according to the AP.

The U.S. Embassy also decried Babariko’s sentence as a “cruel sham,” adding that Lukashenko’s “regime will stop at nothing to keep power,” in a tweet. The U.S. has pursued sanctions against Belarus for the Lukashenko government’s actions, such as diverting a passenger jet in order to jail a journalist in May.

The EU has also imposed similar sanctions, according to the AP. Peter Stano, a spokesman for the European Commission, said Babariko’s “sentence is one of at least 125 unfair and arbitrary recent verdicts by Belarusian courts in politically motivated trials, often held behind closed doors and without due process of law,” the AP reported. (RELATED: Detained Belarusian Journalist Appears Beaten In Confession Video, Father Says)

Stano said the EU is demanding Babariko’s release, as well as the release of “all political prisoners, detained journalists and people who are behind bars for exercising their fundamental rights,” according to the AP. “The regime must halt repression and injustice and hold perpetrators to account,” Stano also said.