May 28, 2023

TALLINN, Estonia (AP) – A court on Friday sentenced Belarus’ top human rights Slot lawyer and one of the winners of the Human Rights Commission. 2022 Nobel Peace Prize Up to 10 years in prison, the latest step in a crackdown on dissent that has beset the ex-Soviet nation since 2020.

The harsh sentencing of Ales Bialyatsky and three of his aides came in response to mass protests over the 2020 election, which has given authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko a new term in office.

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Lukashenko, a longtime ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin who backed Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, has ruled the former Soviet country by a stricture since 1994. More than 35,000 people were arrested and thousands were beaten by police amid the protests, the largest ever. ever held in the country.

Belarus is an outlier in its support for the year-old Russian offensive, with other countries in the region not publicly supporting Moscow.

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Beliatsky and his colleagues at the human rights center he founded were indicted for violating public order and financing trafficking, the center reported on Friday.

Valentin Stefanovich was given a nine-year sentence; Uladzimir Labkowicz seven years; and Dzmitry Salauyou was sentenced in absentia to eight years in prison.

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During the trial, which took place behind closed doors, 60-year-old Baliatsky and his aides were placed in a cage in the courtroom. Since his arrest, he has spent one year and nine months behind bars.

In photos of the courtroom released Friday by Belarus’ state news agency Belta, Baliatsky, dressed in black, looks sad but calm.

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Human rights center Viasana said after the verdict that the four activists maintained their innocence. Viasna is Belarusian for “spring”.

In his final address to the court, Belyatsky urged the authorities to “stop the civil war in Belarus”. He said that the case files made it clear to him that “the investigators were carrying out the task given to them: to deprive Viasana human rights advocates of liberty at any cost, to destroy Viasana and to stop our work.”

Exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tsikanuskaya called the verdict “appalling”.

“We must do everything we can to fight against this shameful injustice (and) to set them free,” Tsikhanskaya tweeted on Friday.

Memorial, the leading Russian human rights group that shared the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize with Bialyatsky and the Ukrainian Center for Civil Liberties, called the decision in an online statement “an undeniable repudiation of their human rights activities as part of a campaign of terror”. condemned as “lawless retaliation”. Against civil society and the entire people of Belarus.

Memorial co-chairman Oleg Orlov attempted to fly to Minsk on Friday to support Bialyatsky, but was prevented from boarding the flight, with airline representatives telling him that Belarus barred him from entering the country. Is. Orlov remarked, “Crimes are better off without witnesses.”

Volodymyr Yavorsky of the Center for Civil Liberties told The Associated Press that Ukrainian human rights advocates expressed solidarity with Bialyatsky and called for his release.

“This verdict shows that Belarus has the worst repression in Europe,” Yavorsky said. “Ukraine is currently resisting the very authoritarian model that the Kremlin tries to impose on the entire former Soviet space.”

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This punishment spread indignation in the West as well.

The Norwegian Helsinki Committee, a non-governmental human rights organisation, said it was “shocked by the cynicism behind the sentences”.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Bierbock labeled the trial and conviction “a farce”.

“This is as much a daily humiliation as Lukashenko’s support for Putin’s war,” Barebock tweeted on Friday. “We call for an end to political persecution and freedom for the more than 1,400 political prisoners.”

The decision also drew condemnation from the Council of Europe rights watchdog and the United Nations Human Rights Spokesperson.

Baliatsky is the fourth person in the 121-year history of the Nobel Prize to receive the award while in prison or custody.