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Demonstrators in Prague rally in support of ousted Belorussian opposition activists Demonstrators in Prague rally in support of ousted Belorussian opposition activists  (AFP or licensors)

Belarus President's challenger sentenced to 14 years in jail

A former challenger of the President of Belarus has been sentenced to 14 years imprisonment. Viktor Babaryko received the penalty for alleged financial wrongdoing, charges he says are politically motivated. The jail term is another setback for thousands of people demanding change in the former Soviet nation.

By Stefan J. Bos

The Belarus Supreme Court convicted Babaryko, a former banker, of taking bribes and money laundering. Besides handing him a 14-year sentence, the court fined him about $57,000.

But Bararyko says the charges were trumped up to prevent him from challenging President Alexander Lukashenko last year's vote.

Raids on the bank Babaryko had formerly led - Belgazprombank - resulted in the criminal investigation. He is among the top opponents of Lukashenko who have been either jailed or forced into exile. His sentence came as a significant disappointment to dissidents.

Thousands of people were already demanding the release of Bararyko and other opponents of the Belarussian president. Lukashenko, in power since 1994, has cracked down massively on his opponents. Massive street protests continued for weeks after the disputed 9 August vote. The protests were often broken up brutally by police, and thousands were detained.

"Rigged vote"

Many participating in the protests claim Lukashenko won a 6th term in office after rigging last year's vote, charges he denies. After Lukashenko's primary opponent was barred from running in the election and detained last June, a trio of women joined forces to oppose President Lukashenko.

They included Maria Kolesnikova, an ally of Babaryko, who is also now in jail. Separately, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, whose opposition politician husband Sergei Tikhanovsky was detained in March 2020, claimed victory in the August election after standing in his place. But the next day, she was forced into exile with her children.

Roman Protasevich, a prominent anti-Lukashenko journalist, was moved to house arrest by the Belarusian authorities last month. His girlfriend, Russian citizen Sofia Sapega, who was captured with him,is also now under house arrest.

Both were taken off a Ryanair passenger plane forced to land in Minsk while flying from Greece to Lithuania. The May incident outraged the European Union, which tightened sanctions on Belarus, including a landing ban on its national carrier Belavia.

But despite the protests, there are no signs yet that the Belarus president will step down.

Listen to the report by Stefan Bos

 

06 July 2021, 16:18