A former contender in the Belarusian 2020 presidential race has been sentenced to 14 years in prison on corruption charges in a case that was widely seen as politically motivated.
Viktor Babariko, the former chief executive of a Russia-owned bank, aspired to challenge Belarus’ authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, in last year’s disputed election.
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But Babariko was arrested two months before the August 2020 vote.
Considered one of Lukashenko’s strongest opponents, he was handed the sentence on Tuesday by the Supreme Court in Minsk.
His Twitter account, which is run by supporters, said he would serve the 14 years “in a maximum-security colony”.
His arrest drew thousands of protesters to the streets.
Babariko has remained in jail since his arrest and rejected the corruption charges against him as politically driven.
On Tuesday, he was found guilty of taking a bribe and money laundering when he was head of Belgazprombank, the Belarusian branch of a bank belonging to Russian energy giant Gazprom.
In addition to the lengthy jail sentence, he was also ordered to pay damages, a fine, and was barred from holding senior official positions.
He will not be able to appeal the Supreme Court verdict.
Lukashenko’s reelection to a sixth term last year prompted months of mass protests, the largest of which drew up to 200,000 people.
The opposition refused to recognise the results of the election, saying that the vote was manipulated.
Authorities responded to the demonstrations with a huge crackdown that, according to the opposition and rights groups, saw more than 35,000 people arrested and thousands beaten by police.
Most opposition leaders have been jailed or forced to leave the country.
Exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya called the verdict “insane” and said it was aimed at silencing Babariko.
“14 years for faith in an idea,” Tsikhanouskaya, who fled abroad after claiming to win the vote against Lukashenko, wrote on the Telegram messaging app. “The regime is doing everything to kill ideas in us that are even remotely similar to hope.”
The US embassy in Minsk called the sentence a “sham” and said it showed that “the Lukashenko regime will stop at nothing to keep power.”
Western diplomats were present at the hearing, while two people were arrested outside the court after “dozens” of Babariko supporters arrived at the building but were not permitted inside the courtroom, according to local independent rights group Viasna.
Prosecutors had requested a 15-year sentence, the maximum possible punishment. Babariko denied any wrongdoing throughout his trial.