A Belarusian court has delivered verdicts and harsh sentences to a group of bloggers, opposition activists, and the husband of exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. All of those of them were rounded up by security officials before a controversial presidential election that saw authoritarian ruler Alexander Lukashenko claim a sixth term in power despite widespread belief that the vote was rigged.
Rights groups consider all six of those sentenced in the southeastern city of Homel on Tuesday to be political prisoners. At 173 days, the trial was one of the longest in Belarus's history.
The crackdown on the pro-democracy movement has only intensified since mass protests erupted in the wake of Lukashenko's August 2020 reelection, which is not recognized by the opposition and the West.
Popular video blogger Syarhei Tsikhanouski , who intended to run against Lukashenko before being disqualified and ultimately arrested ahead of the election, was sentenced to 18 years in prison.
After being disqualified, his political novice wife, Tsikhanouskaya, mobilized voters and won the election, according to the opposition and Western countries.
Tsikhanouskaya has been living in exile in Lithuania since fleeing Belarus after the election due to concerns about her safety and that of the couple's two children.
"The very existence of these people is a crime for the regime. They're repressed for wanting to live in a free Belarus," Tsikhanouskaya said in a tweet immediately after news of the verdict broke.
"The dictator publicly takes revenge on his strongest opponents. While hiding the political prisoners in closed trials, he hopes to continue repressions in silence. But the whole world watches. We won't stop," she added.
Another blogger, Ihar Losik, who is also an RFE/RL consultant, was handed a sentence of 15 years. He was arrested before the election and accused of using his popular Telegram channel to prepare actions to violate public order.
RFE/RL President Jamie Fly called on the Lukashenko regime to end its "reprehensible" treatment of Losik and other journalists.
"The closed-door trial he and his co-defendants have endured for the past five months has been an outrageous travesty of justice. We again call on the Lukashenko regime to stop their assault on news organizations and journalists and bloggers like Ihar and let him return to his wife and daughter," Fly said ahead of the verdict.
Among the other defendants in the trial, former presidential candidate Mikalay Statkevich received a prison sentence of 14 years, opposition activist Uladzimer Tsyhanovich 15 years, activist Artsyom Sakau 16 tears, and another activist, Dzmitry Papou, 16 years.
In a statement, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned the sentences, calling them “politically motivated.” He urged the Lukashenko regime to “end its crackdown on members of civil society, independent media, political opposition, athletes, students, legal professionals and other Belarusians.”
The defendants, who have been in pretrial detention since their arrests, are accused of various alleged crimes, including organizing mass disorder, inciting social hatred, impeding the activities of the Central Election Commission, and organizing activities that disrupt social order. It’s unclear why some of the defendants are being tried together or the reason for the trial being held behind closed doors.
In the wake of the election, tens of thousands of people were detained and human rights activists say more than 800 people are considered political prisoners.
Independent media, opposition social-media channels, and civil society groups have also been harassed and shut down, while much of the opposition is either in prison or exile.