A former Belarusian presidential candidate has been sentenced to fourteen years in prison on corruption charges after a “sham” trial.
Viktor Babariko — the former chief executive of a Russian-owned bank — had planned to challenge Belarus’ authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, in last year’s election.
But he was arrested two months before the August 2020 vote, which drew thousands of protesters onto the streets.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court in Belarus convicted Babariko of bribery and money laundering, in a case that has been widely seen as politically motivated.
The former candidate has remained in custody since his arrest and denies the corruption charges against him. He will not be able to appeal the verdict and 14-year sentence.
Babariko was also ordered to pay back 46 million Belarusian roubles (€15 million) in damages, fined an additional €45,000, and banned from holding leadership positions, according to the human rights NGO Viasna.
His conviction is seen as the latest example of a fierce crackdown on critics of President Lukashenko, given that Babariko was seen as the most serious challenger ahead of last year’s election.
Supporters of the opponent have said that he would have to serve his sentence “in a prison colony with enhanced security.”
A number of foreign diplomats, including the French ambassador to Belarus, were present at Babariko’s trial in Minsk on Tuesday.
At least two people were arrested by police at the entrance to the court, according to Viasna.
“This is a senseless sentence aimed at an individual who had decided to go into politics and had become one of the leaders who woke the country up from a long sleep,” said exiled opposition figure Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya on Telegram.
The court’s verdict has also been condemned by the U.S. embassy in Belarus on Twitter.
“The cruel sham of the Belarus court system is on display today … showing the Lukashenko regime will stop at nothing to keep power,” the embassy said.
The prosecution had claimed that Babariko had committed corruption while in charge of Belgazprombank, the Belarusian subsidiary of the Russian giant Gazprom.
Seven other former employees of the bank, who pleaded guilty and testified against the trial, were sentenced to between three and six and a half years in prison, Viasna said.
Before his trial, Babariko had said that he still believed in the emergence of a “happy, honest and open Belarus”.
His closest adviser, Maria Kolesnikova, was one of three female figures who led the opposition protest after his arrest. She was herself jailed after refusing to go into exile and is being prosecuted for “plotting to seize power”.
President Lukashenko’s disputed re-election has prompted unprecedented opposition demonstrations in Belarus, and a violent crackdown that has seen more than 35,000 people arrested.
The European Union and other western countries have adopted sanctions against Belarusian officials and key economic sectors in response to the authorities’ actions.