Bad times for the opposition in Belarus. In less than a week, two key figures in the pro-democracy movement have been sentenced to heavy prison terms…
It is not a surprise, but the sentence remains heavy.
On Monday, the main opponent of the Belarusian regime, Svetlana Tikhanovskaïa, was sentenced in absentia to 15 years in prison by a court in Minsk.
Mme Tikhanovskaïa, 40, was notably accused of “conspiracy to seize power unconstitutionally” during the monster demonstrations which followed the 2020 elections, where she had swayed President Alexander Lukashenko.
Refugee in Lithuania, where she now leads a government in exile, the politician swore on Twitter to continue the fight, in the wake of this trial which she described as “farce” and “personal revenge” of Lukashenko.
“Today, I don’t think about my own pain. I am thinking of thousands of innocent people, detainees and people sentenced to real prison terms,” she said.
I won’t stop until each of them is released.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaïa, main opponent of the Belarusian regime
Coincidence? Three days earlier, activist Alès Bialiatski, 60, co-winner of the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for his role in the 2020 protests.
The sentence was immediately decried by the UN, the Nobel Committee, France and the United States, who denounced a “fictitious court decision” and called for an end to the “persecutions” against opponents in Belarus.
According to state-run Belta news agency and human rights organization Viasna, another famous opponent, Pavel Latushko, was sentenced to 18 years, while three others were sentenced to 12 years. from prison.
Other sentences could follow, while several journalists from the website Tut.by, the main independent media in Belarus, are tried behind closed doors.
29 years of repression
These serial convictions are part of a context of accelerated repression in Belarus, following the historic protest movement of 2020 triggered by the controversial re-election of Alexander Lukashenko, in power for almost 29 years.
Monster demonstrations had followed the ballot – marred by massive fraud according to observers – repressed by thousands of arrests, cases of torture, the death of many demonstrators, heavy sentences and forced exiles, including that of Mme Tikhanovskaïa, candidate for the election.
“There has since been a continuous effort by the regime to suppress the opposition and stay in power,” said Maria Popova, professor of political science at McGill University.
The idea is to send a signal to the population and to discredit the opposition. Lukashenko can’t let his opponents get back on their feet.
Maria Popova, professor of political science at McGill University.
Comparative politics specialist at the University of Montreal, Magdalena Dembinska agrees that the regime has been radicalized since 2020. Repression is “far more extensive”, while the space for any opposition “has shrunk”, says this Eastern Europe expert.
But she wishes to recall that Lukashenko did not wait for the demonstrations of 2020 to crush dissent.
Since he came to power in 1994, activists have disappeared, others have been imprisoned and silenced, including blogger Sergei Tikhanovski (husband of Mme Tikhanovskaya, sentenced to 18 years).
If the convictions of Mme Tikhanovskaïa and Mr. Bialiatski are making so many waves, she says, it is because these two figures are known beyond Belarus. The first because of his Nobel, the second because of his exile and his communication skills.
“There is a symbolic significance for the West”, underlines Mme Demblinska.
A living resistance
Although weakened, the Belarusian opposition is no less active.
More than 20 people were arrested in Belarus on Tuesday, following the alleged sabotage of a Russian military plane near Minsk in February.
The act was attributed to Ukraine by the Belarusian president, but had been claimed by the BYPOL group.
This paramilitary organization, which recruits and arms dissent from Poland, aims to restore democracy in Belarus and install Svetlana Tikhanovskaïa in power.
Since Alexander Lukashenko chose Vladimir Putin’s side in the war in Ukraine (a nod to Moscow’s support during the 2020 protests), Mme Tikhanovskaya has become a key partner for Western governments, due to her formidable political acumen.
The story of this former translator and English teacher, who initially had no political ambitions and who had left her career to take full-time care of her hearing-impaired son, is an amazing story. It took the imprisonment of her husband, in 2020, for her to take over and her destiny to change direction radically…
With Agence France-Presse
- 9.5 million inhabitants
- Population of Belarus
- Number of political prisoners in Belarus
Source: Viasna Center for Human Rights