(CN) — Belarusian human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize co-winner Ales Bialiatski was sentenced to 10 years in prison on Friday by a Minsk court on charges that he funded mass anti-government protests and smuggled money into the country.
Bialiatski was sentenced along with two other members of Viasna, a Belarusian human rights group at the forefront of protests against the dictatorial regime of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, a former Soviet official who's been in power since 1994.
Lukashenko's government has fiercely cracked down on opponents and critics since his grip on power was threatened by mass protests that erupted following his disputed reelection in August 2020. Thousands of protesters were arrested during violent repression by police and military forces.
Valiantsin Stefanovich, Bialiatski's deputy, was given a nine-year sentence and Uladzimir Labkovicz, a lawyer for Viasna, received a seven-year sentence, according to Viasna. Belarusian state media confirmed the court's rulings. A fourth person linked to Viasna – Dzmitry Salauyou – was sentenced in absentia to eight years in prison.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the exiled Belarusian opposition leader, denounced the sentences as “shameful” revenge by the regime for the activists' human rights work.
“Ten years for a Nobel Prize laureate shows clearly what Lukashenko's regime is,” she said on Twitter. “We won't stop fighting for our heroes.”
The sentence was condemned by international human rights groups and leaders in the European Union. Belarus is under heavy EU sanctions and deemed a major threat by the EU and the United States since Lukashenko deepened his alignment with Russian President Vladimir Putin following the 2020 mass protests. Russian military forces launch attacks against Ukraine from Belarusian territory.
Last October, Bialiatski was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize along with other human rights activists in Russia and Ukraine. In awarding Bialiatski the prize, the Norwegian Nobel Committee called for his release from prison.
Viasna said the trial against Bialiatski was a sham, with the defendants remaining in handcuffs during what the group said were rushed and unfair proceedings. Bialiatski denied the charges and said he was a victim of political persecution.
He founded Viasna (Belarusian for “Spring”) in 1996. At the time, he was outraged by a slew of constitutional amendments passed by Lukashenko that Bialiatski warned gave the president omnipotent powers. Viasna became Belarus' most prominent human rights groups, documenting government torture and other abuses.
Bialiatski was imprisoned from 2011 to 2014 and again in 2020 during Lukashenko's brutal crackdown on what the president defined as a coup attempt orchestrated by Western powers.
Bialiatski began speaking out against the Soviet Union in the 1980s, advocating for the creation of a democratic Belarus republic. An ardent Belarusian nationalist, he was persecuted in Belarus for his anti-Soviet and anti-Russian rhetoric.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.
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