Opposition leader in Belarus sentenced to 15 years in prison for ‘treason’

Exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya was sentenced to 15 years in prison on Monday after being convicted in absentia of treason and “conspiracy to seize power”, a verdict she said was punishment for her efforts to promote democracy.

Ms Tsikhanouskaya, 40, a former English teacher, left for neighboring Lithuania in 2020 after running against incumbent Alexander Lukashenko in a presidential election in which official results showed Lukashenko won by a landslide.

She and the opposition said at the time that the results were rigged to give victory to Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus with an iron fist for nearly 30 years.

Then mass protests erupted against Lukashenko, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, which his security forces crushed, jailing his opponents or forcing them to flee.

Authorities put Ms. Tsikhanouskaya, the de facto opposition 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 Ms Tsikhanouskaya to 15 years in prison after finding her guilty of treason and plotting to seize power.

The same court handed down an 18-year prison sentence to Pavel Latushko, a prominent member of the Belarusian opposition council, and 12 years to three other activists convicted as part of the same plot, the Belta agency reported.

“15 years in prison. This is how the regime ‘rewarded’ my work for democratic changes in Belarus,” Ms Tsikhanouskaya wrote on Twitter. “But today I don’t think about my punishment. I think about thousands of innocent people, imprisoned and sentenced to real prisons. I will not stop until every one of them is released.”

Rights activists estimate that around 1,500 people are in prison in Belarus on politically motivated charges.

Ms Tsikhanouskaya’s husband, Syarhei, is serving an 18-year sentence after being found guilty in 2021 of organizing mass riots in a ruling she said was political vendetta and part of a crackdown by Lukashenko on anyone he saw as threat.

Nobel Peace Prize winner and human rights activist Ales Bialiatski was sentenced to 10 years in prison on Friday by a court in Minsk in a trial condemned in the West as a “fraud”.

Lukashenko, in power since 1994, has accused the West of trying to destabilize Belarus and has vowed to crack down on any new attempts to challenge his rule.

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