Viktor Babariko never got the chance to run against Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko in last year’s fraudulent presidential election, but that’s not preventing him from facing trial.
On Wednesday, a court in Minsk started a hearing of the opposition leader who was seen as such a potent challenger to Lukashenko that authorities prevented him from running in the August 2020 election. Crowds gathered outside the courthouse were not permitted inside, where Babariko was denied a motion to be moved from jail to house arrest, according to the independent Belsat news portal.
It’s part of a wide-ranging effort by Lukashenko’s regime to keep his leading political foes in prison.
Babariko, a former senior banker, was arrested in June and accused of money laundering and bribery. He faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted. Human rights watchdogs have declared him a political prisoner.
During his abortive presidential campaign, Babariko spooked Lukashenko with signs of his popularity. He collected over 430,000 signatures, well above the 100,000 needed to get on the ballot and a record for any opposition candidate since 1994, when Lukashenko first won power. He was doing so well in opinion polls that the government blocked the online surveys that showed him trouncing Lukashenko.
After being blocked from running, Babariko’s campaign joined with other opposition efforts to form a united front backing Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who was widely seen as the election winner and is now in exile in the EU. The outcome of the election sparked months of protests that have shaken Lukashenko.
“Darkness, malice and lies cannot last forever,” Babariko wrote to his supporters in a statement from prison published by his team on Tuesday. The politician added that “despite everything … people have sacrificed their well-being, freedom and even their lives” over the past months of anti-Lukashenko protests in Belarus, and that these people “evoke incredible pride and admiration.”
At least four opposition protesters have been killed by security forces, and thousands were beaten and humiliated. Human rights watchdogs know the names of around 770 people who face criminal charges. Over 30,000 people were fined or arrested, with some being held for weeks.
Although he’s been behind bars for months, Babariko still poses a potential challenge to Lukashenko. A survey carried out last month by Chatham House found he was the most popular politician, with 29 percent of those polled saying Babariko would make the best president, while only 27 percent said that of Lukashenko.
The crackdown isn’t over.
On Tuesday, police raided homes of over 40 independent journalists, human rights defenders and union activists as part of what they said was a probe into alleged “preparations of acts seriously disturbing public order or active participation in them.”
Two journalists, Darya Chultsova and Katsiaryna Andreyeva, face a possible two years in prison for live-streaming a protest that followed the November killing of Raman Bandarenka, who died after being beaten by plain-clothes police.
Another high-profile political prisoner awaiting the start of a trial is popular blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, the husband of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. He was barred from running in the presidential campaign and was arrested in May. The regime accuses him of preparing “a grave breach of public order.”
Maria Kolesnikova, Babariko’s campaign manager, was arrested in September after she refused to be forced out of the country, and is accused of threatening national security. On Friday, she was also accused of extremism and trying to illegally seize power; she faces up to 12 years in prison if found guilty.
Last week, Minsk also requested the extradition from Latvia of Valery Tsepkalo, an opposition politician who fled Belarus. The authorities accuse him of bribery, a charge he denies.
Lukashenko said last week that the government plans to pass more laws to end protests, and stop what Belarus KGB chief Ivan Tertel called “a failed attempted rebellion.” Lukashenko also insisted that “We have never had any political prisoners, either now or in the past.”
The EU refuses to acknowledge Lukashenko as the legitimate leader of Belarus and has levied sanctions against him and his leading backers.
That stance appeared to wobble when a joint letter from the EU and the World Health Organization last month on fighting the coronavirus pandemic addressed Lukashenko as “Your Excellency” — which was seized on by the government in Belarus as proof of his legitimacy.
“Lukashenka has used this letter in propaganda goals. We understand that this was a misunderstanding, and no one recognizes him as president. But he wants badly that the world identifies him as president,” said Tikhanovskaya.
“The letter was intended to help to include Belarus in global efforts in fighting the coronavirus pandemic and does not change anything as regards the EU’s established position regarding Lukashenko,” said an EU official.