TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — A court on Friday sentenced Belarus’ top human rights advocate and one of the winners of the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize to 10 years in prison, the latest move in a yearslong crackdown on dissent that has engulfed the ex-Soviet nation since 2020.
The harsh punishment of Ales Bialiatski and three of his colleagues was delivered in response to massive protests over a 2020 election that gave authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko a new term in office.
Lukashenko, a longtime ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin who backed Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, has ruled the ex-Soviet country with an iron fist since 1994. More than 35,000 people were arrested, and thousands were beaten by police amid the protests, the largest ever held in the country.
Belarus is an outlier in its support of the year-old Russian invasion, with other countries in the region not backing Moscow publicly.
Bialiatski and his colleagues at the human rights center he founded were convicted of financing actions violating public order and smuggling, the center reported Friday.
Valiantsin Stefanovich was given a nine-year sentence; Uladzimir Labkovicz seven years; and Dzmitry Salauyou was sentenced in absentia to eight years in prison.
During the trial, which took place behind closed doors, the 60-year-old Bialiatski and his colleagues were held in a caged enclosure in the courtroom. They have spent a year and nine months behind bars since their arrest.
In the photos from the courtroom released Friday by Belarus’ state news agency Belta, Bialiatksi, clad in black clothes, looked wan, but calm.
All four activists have maintained their innocence, the Human Rights Center Viasna said after the verdict. Viasna is Belarusian for “spring.”
In his final address to the court, Bialiatski urged the authorities to “stop the civil war in Belarus.” He said it became obvious to him from the case files that “the investigators were fulfilling the task they were given: to deprive Viasna human rights advocates of freedom at any cost, destroy Viasna and stop our work.”
Exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya called the verdict “appalling.”
“We must do everything to fight against this shameful injustice (and) free them,” Tsikhanouskaya tweeted Friday.
Memorial, the prominent Russian human rights group that shared the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize with Bialiatski and the Ukrainian Center for Civil Liberties, in an online statement denounced the verdict as “an undisguised lawless reprisal for their human rights activities as part of a campaign of terror against civil society and the entire people of Belarus.”
Oleg Orlov, co-chair of Memorial, attempted to fly to Minsk to support Bialiatski on Friday, but was prevented from boarding the flight, with airline representatives telling him Belarus had barred him from entering the country. “Crimes are better committed without witnesses,” Orlov remarked.
Volodymyr Yavorsky from the Center for Civil Liberties told The Associated Press that Ukrainian human rights advocates express solidarity with Bialiatski and demand his release.
“This verdict shows that the highest level of repression in Europe is in Belarus,” Yavorsky said. “Ukraine is currently resisting the very totalitarian model that the Kremlin tries to impose on the entire former Soviet space.”
The punishment also elicited outrage in the West.
The Norwegian Helsinki Committee, a nongovernmental human rights organization, said that it was “shocked by the cynicism behind the sentences.”
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock labeled the trial and sentencing “a farce.”
“This is just as much a daily disgrace as Lukashenko’s support for Putin’s war,” Baerbock tweeted Friday. “We call for the end of political persecution and freedom for the more than 1,400 political prisoners.”
Condemnations of the verdict also came from the Council of Europe rights watchdog and the U.N. Human Rights spokesperson.
Bialiatski is the fourth person in the 121-year history of the Nobel Prizes to receive the award while in prison or detention.
Associated Press writers Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark; Geir Moulson in Berlin; Lorne Cook in Brussels and Jamey Keaten in Geneva contributed to this report.