Exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya has been handed a 15-year prison term after being convicted in absentia of treason and conspiracy to seize power, a verdict she says is punishment for her efforts to promote democracy.
Tsikhanouskaya, 40, a former English teacher, fled to neighbouring Lithuania in 2020 after running against incumbent Alexander Lukashenko in a presidential election, which official results showed Lukashenko won by a landslide.
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She and the opposition said at the time that the results had been doctored to hand victory to Lukashenko. Anger at the official results triggered widescale protests.
Lukashenko, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, unleashed a brutal crackdown on demonstrators, accusing the opposition of plotting to overthrow the government. Key opposition figures and activists were arrested, and some fled the country.
Lukashenko has ruled Belarus for nearly 30 years. During the mass protests, his government detained more than 35,000 people.
The authorities put Tsikhanouskaya, the opposition’s de facto leader, on trial in absentia in January, accusing her and other opposition figures of trying to seize power in an unconstitutional manner.
Belta, the state news agency, said a court in Minsk had sentenced Tsikhanouskaya on Monday to 15 years in a prison camp.
The same court handed an 18-year prison sentence to Pavel Latushko, a prominent member of the Belarusian opposition council, and 12-year sentences to three other activists convicted of being part of the same plot, Belta reported.
All of them left Belarus after the protests erupted in August 2020.
“15 years of prison. This is how the regime ‘rewarded’ my work for democratic changes in Belarus,” Tsikhanouskaya wrote on Twitter.
“But today I don’t think about my own sentence,” she said. “I think about thousands of innocents, detained & sentenced to real prison terms. I won’t stop until each of them is released.”
‘One big KGB’
Tsikhanouskaya told The Associated Press news agency that her court-appointed lawyer hasn’t been in touch with her once during the trial and has not responded to her requests to review the case files.
She charged that the law and the justice system in Belarus no longer work and the state “has turned into one big KGB”.
“The regime takes revenge on me and all Belarusians – it takes revenge for the fact that we chose freedom in 2020, for not resigning, not giving in, but continuing to fight,” Tsikhanouskaya said.
“If Lukashenko could, he would have jailed everyone,” she added.
In addition to the prison sentence, Tsikhanouskaya was ordered to pay a fine of about $11,000.
Tsikhanouskaya was sentenced days after Nobel Peace Prize winner and human rights activist Ales Bialiatski was sentenced to 10 years in prison by a court in Minsk in a trial condemned by the West as a “sham”.
Rights activists estimate about 1,500 people are in jail in Belarus on politically motivated charges.