A court in Minsk has sentenced Belarusian Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ales Byalyatski to 10 years in prison on smuggling and tax-evasion charges that rights defenders and Western governments have called politically motivated retribution by longtime authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
The Vyasna (Spring) human rights center in Minsk said the Lenin district court on March 3 also sentenced Byalyatski’s co-defendants in the case — Valyantsin Stefanovich and Uladzimer Labkovich — to nine years and seven years, respectively.
A fourth defendant, Zmitser Salauyou, who was tried in absentia, was sentenced to eight years in prison.
The men, who went on trial in early January, have denied the accusations of bringing money into Belarus for “illegal activities and financing” Vyasna, of which Byalyatski is the chairman.
Byalyatski, who has been fighting for democracy and human rights in his beleaguered homeland his entire life, was awarded the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize along with the Ukrainian Center for Civil Liberties human rights organization and the embattled Russian rights group Memorial.
He founded the Vyasna Human Rights Center, which was originally a Minsk-based organization with the name Vyasna-96. In 1999, it was reborn as a national, nongovernmental rights organization.
The NGO was outlawed by the Belarusian Supreme Court in October 2003 for its role monitoring the country’s 2001 presidential election. It has continued its work, however, as an unregistered NGO.
The main work of the organization has been defending and supporting political prisoners. The group — and Byalyatski personally — has regularly been harassed and persecuted by Lukashenka’s government since its founding.
Belarusian authorities have moved to shut down critical and nonstate media outlets and human rights bodies in the wake of mass protests that erupted in August 2020 after a presidential election the opposition said was rigged.
The opposition and Western governments say Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who was driven into exile, won the vote, which has not been recognized by the United States, the European Union, and several other countries.
Thousands have been detained since the vote and there have been credible reports of the torture and ill-treatment of detainees by security forces. Several people have died during the crackdown.
At his trial on February 13, Byalyatski told the court in Minsk the case had been politically motivated from the start, as investigators set out to fulfill the task in front of them to imprison the human rights defenders of Vyasna “at any cost” and to destroy Vyasna and stop its work.
Byalyatski also said state media reports about Vyasna and its work had been highly biased and noted that one of the four lawyers who defended him during the 18 months since the case opened had been imprisoned for eight years while two others had their licenses stripped.
“This unprecedented pressure imposed on the lawyers indicates in what kind of dangerous circumstances they have to defend their clients,” Byalyatski said.
Byalyatski added that the situation in the country since the disputed presidential election in August 2020 was followed by an ongoing mass crackdown on dissent, rights defenders, journalists, and democratic institutions remained dramatic.
Belarus “needs a wide civil dialogue directed at national reconciliation,” he said. (RFE/RL’s Belarus Service)