- Babariko wanted to run against outgoing leader Lukashenko
- Was arrested before the elections and charged with corruption
- His team said he was put in place to remove him from the election
- Court sentences him to 14 years in prison
- US decries ruling, calls court a “sham”
MOSCOW, July 6 (Reuters) – A Belarusian court on Tuesday sentenced former presidential candidate Viktor Babariko to 14 years in prison after convicting him of corruption which he denied, triggering condemnation of the West and of the opposition in exile.
Prior to his arrest last June, opinion polls suggested Babariko, 57, was the main rival of veteran leader Alexander Lukashenko ahead of a presidential election which the opposition said was rigged last August to extend the long reign. by Lukashenko.
In power since 1994, Lukashenko won a landslide electoral victory and a new presidential term, sparking the biggest protests in modern history in the former Soviet republic of 9.7 million people backed by Moscow. He denied electoral fraud.
Ahead of Tuesday’s decision, allies of Babariko, the former head of Belgazprombank, said the charges against him were fabricated to thwart his political ambitions.
“That’s a crazy term for a man who decided to go into politics and became one of the leaders who woke the country from a long slumber,” said Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, a protest leader who fled Belarus amid a post-election crackdown.
“… The regime does everything to kill any thought that even remotely resembles faith and hope. But for Viktor – as for thousands of innocent people in prison – what matters most is ‘hope in our hearts, “she said.
The US Embassy in Minsk criticized the decision.
“The cruel sham of the Belarusian judicial system is exposed today (…) showing that the Lukashenka regime will stop at nothing to keep power,” the embassy said on Twitter.
After Babariko was prevented from appearing and detained, Maria Kolesnikova, one of his allies, joined with two other women – Tsikhanouskaya and Veronika Tsepkalo – to lead the opposition campaign.
Kolesnikova is now in jail, Tsepkalo has fled abroad and Tsikhanouskaya, who ran against Lukashenko and has since become the most prominent opposition figure on the loose, tries to undermine Lukashenko from neighboring Lithuania. .
The UN special rapporteur on Monday called on Belarus to immediately release some 530 imprisoned people whom human rights groups consider to be “political prisoners”, while the Washington envoy hinted at the possibility of further economic sanctions against Minsk.
UN Special Rapporteur Anaïs Marin says more than 35,000 people have been arbitrarily detained over the past year and fear of repression has prompted tens of thousands of Belarusians to flee to seek refuge abroad.
Additional reporting by Tom Balmforth Editing by Andrew Osborn
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