(CN) — Belarus sentenced Siarhei Tsikhanouski, a businessman and blogger who played a pivotal role in sparking an opposition movement seeking to bring down the regime of President Alexander Lukashenko, to 18 years in prison on Tuesday.
Tsikhanouski is the husband of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the self-exiled opposition leader who fled Belarus fearing arrest when mass protests broke out against Lukashenko following presidential elections in August 2020. The elections, which gave Lukashenko a landslide victory, were widely regarded as rigged. Security forces then violently cracked down on mass protests that erupted following the election.
From exile in Lithuania, Tsikhanouskaya is calling for new elections and freeing political prisoners. She has the backing of the European Union and the United States.
In the run-up to the election, Tsikhanouski entered the race to replace Lukashenko and was promptly arrested as part of a campaign by Lukashenko to wipe out a growing opposition movement. The strongman of Belarus has been in power since 1994 and he is often referred to as “Europe’s last dictator” because he has run his country as a Soviet-era leader.
Tsikhanouski, 43, and several other opposition figures were sentenced after closed-door legal proceedings that were considered a sham. He was charged with organizing mass unrest and inciting hatred.
“The dictator publicly takes revenge on his strongest opponents,” Tsikhanouskaya said on Twitter about her husband’s sentence. “While hiding the political prisoners in closed trials, he hopes to continue repressions in silence. But the whole world watches. We won't stop.”
In May, when Tsikhanouski announced he was going to run for the presidency, he was arrested for violating a public order and barred from entering the election. Prior to his arrest, he drew parallels with Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his work to expose corruption inside Russia. Navalny too is in prison after he was arrested upon his return to Moscow following treatment in Germany for what he and German doctors said was poisoning by Russian agents.
Tsikhanouski insulted Lukashenko by calling him a corrupt “cockroach” and the term caught on with supporters who waved slippers – a gesture to kill insects – and shouted “Stop the cockroach.”
The 2020 presidential race was turned on its head though when it became a contest between Lukashenko and three women. Tsikhanouskaya ran in her husband's stead and became Lukashenko's main challenger by drawing large crowds and becoming the face of the Belarusian uprising. She joined forces with the wife of the exiled opposition figure Valery Tsapkala, an ex-diplomat popular among Belarus's urban elites, and Maria Kolesnikova, a woman leading the campaign of another jailed opposition figure, former banker Viktor Babariko. Kolesnikova was sentenced to 11 years in September on charges of seeking to overthrow the government.
Also sentenced Tuesday was veteran politician Mikola Statkevich, a 65-year-old who challenged Lukashenko in 2010 elections and ended up serving a six-year sentence. He was sentenced to 14 years.
Four other co-defendants -- Ihar Losik, Uladzimir Tsyhanovich, Artsiom Sakau and Dzmitry Papou – were given similar sentences for their alleged roles in fomenting unrest.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.
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