LONDON: Nobel Peace Prize winner and human rights activist Ales Bialiatski was sentenced to 10 years in prison on Friday by a court in his native Belarus which found him guilty of financing protests in a ruling condemned by Germany as a “farce”.
Bialiatski, 60, was awarded the Nobel prize in October for his work promoting human rights and democracy in a country which ex-Soviet farm boss Alexander Lukashenko, a staunch ally of Russia, has ruled with an iron hand for nearly 30 years, violently locking up his opponents or forcing them to flee.
Footage from the cramped Minsk court showed Bialiatski, who co-founded the Viasna (Spring) human rights group, looking sombre, his hands cuffed behind his back, as he and his co-defendants watched proceedings from a courtroom cage.
Bialiatski, who was arrested in 2021, and three co-defendants were charged with financing protests and smuggling money. Belarusian state news agency Belta confirmed the court had handed down long jail sentences to all the men, including a decade in prison for Bialiatski. He denied the charges against him, calling them politically motivated.
Exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said Bialiatski and three other activists sentenced in the same trial - one of whom was tried in absentia - had been unfairly convicted, and described the verdict as “appalling”.
“We must do everything to fight against this shameful injustice & free them,” she said on Twitter.
The other three men convicted were Valentin Stefanovich, sentenced to nine years, Vladimir Labkovich, who got seven years, and Dmitry Solovyov, who received eight years but was not present in the court.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock called the trial “a farce”.
“The Minsk regime is fighting civil society with violence and imprisonment. This is as much a daily disgrace as Lukashenko’s support for (Russian President Vladimir) Putin’s war (in Ukraine),” she wrote on Twitter.
Ravina Shamdasani, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, told a briefing in Geneva that the United Nations body was disturbed by the trial and worried by “the lack of fair trial proceedings and access to an independent judiciary in Belarus”.
That, she said, placed human rights defenders at risk of criminal prosecution for their legitimate activities.
At the end of 2022, there were at least 1,446 people - including 10 children - being held, having faced or still facing criminal proceedings, said Shamdasani, without elaborating.
Bialiatski, who was also a Soviet-era dissident, was one of the most prominent of hundreds of Belarusians who were jailed during a crackdown on months of anti-government protests that erupted in the summer of 2020 and continued into 2021.
Viasna, the organisation he co-founded, took a leading role in providing legal and financial assistance to those jailed.
Mass demonstrations took place after Lukashenko was declared the winner of the 2020 presidential election, a result which the opposition and Western countries said was fraudulent.