The most popular politician in opposition to the Belarusian dictatorship, Viktor Babariko, 57, was sentenced on Tuesday (6) to 14 years in prison for corruption. According to the human rights organization Viasna, which monitors cases of political prisoners in the European country, the decision was taken by the Supreme Court, which prevents appeals.
According to Valiantsin Stefanovich, member of Viasna, there were “flagrant violations of the principles of a fair trial”. “The essence of this case is to prevent Babariko from exercising the right to govern his country by participating in free and democratic elections organized regularly,” said the activist.
When he was arrested by dictator Alexander Lukashenko in June last year, Babariko had already obtained 435,000 signatures in support of his presidential candidacy, more than four times the number needed. The plateau had never been reached by an opponent since Lukashenko took power in 1994, during the first (and only free) post-USSR election.
Former Belarusian president of Belgazprombank bank, millionaire Babariko was known in his country for sponsoring philanthropic entities and institutions that support the country’s culture — including a gallery where he brought together works by some of the greatest Belarusian artists, such as Mark Chagall, Faïbich-Schraga Zarfin and Chaim Soutine.
It was Babariko who bought and brought to Belarus the painting “Eva” by Soutine, the only work of the Belarusian artist in the country. Winning $ 1.805 million (around 9.3 million reais) at a Christie’s auction in 2013, the canvas was known as “Belarus’ most expensive painting”.
When the dictatorship confiscated Belgazprombank’s artwork after Barbariko’s arrest, “Eva” became one of the most popular symbols of Lukashenko’s opponents, stamping T-shirts of demonstrators who took to the streets. to demand his resignation or appearing with his middle finger lifted on social media accounts. .
Even after his arrest, the former candidate maintained his popularity – independent polls are almost impossible in Belarus, but a January online poll from Chatham House placed him at the top of popular support, with 28.8% of citations .
The prosecution had called for a 15-year maximum-security prison sentence, the longest for the crimes Babariko was tried for – accepting large-scale corruption and money laundering. The court ordered that the sentence be served in a medium security prison.
Detained for over a year, he refused to testify and said the charges were unrealistic. In his last statement to the court ahead of sentencing at the end of June, the former candidate reaffirmed his innocence, said he could not confess to a crime he did not commit just to reduce his sentence and that he had a clear conscience vis-à-vis the members of his family and his Belgazprombank employees.
Babariko is one of 534 people currently imprisoned in Belarus for political reasons, according to Viasna Monitoring. Another very popular former opposition candidate, blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, has also been in prison since before the 2020 elections.
It was the dictatorship’s action to prevent Babariko and Tikhanovsky from running that led then-housewife Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, 38, to run for her husband and on behalf of an opposition front. Analysts said Lukashenko allowed him to come forward because he didn’t believe a woman would be able to attract voters to Belarus.
However, the Tikhanovskaya-led opposition front brought tens of thousands of people to rallies across the country and raised expectations for a change of power in Belarus. The announcement of the dictator’s re-election with 80% of the vote on election night, August 9, 2020, outraged his opponents and triggered a wave of protests across the country.
Since then, the dictatorship has tried to quell its critics, while opponents of Lukashenko have sought new ways to supplant the regime and garner international support. In the last chapter of this struggle, the dictator intercepted a commercial flight between Greece and Lithuania to arrest an opposition blogger, journalist Roman Protassevich.
The act drew strong international condemnation and new, heavier sanctions were imposed on the Belarusian regime by the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union. Lukashenko, however, sought the support of Russian President Vladimir Putin and counterattacked by letting Asian immigrants pass through its border to EU member Lithuania.
In the coming days, a new trial is expected to bring Babariko’s campaign leader Maria Kalesnikava, 39, to the docks.
Music, she refused to leave the country during the brutal repression imposed by Lukashenko after the elections. Kalesnikava was even kidnapped in September last year by the KGB (secret police of the dictatorship). She managed to foil the attempt to force her to travel to Ukraine by escaping through the window of the car she was in and tearing up her passport.
Arrested since, Kalesnikava and the lawyer Maksim Znak, also member of the council of the opposition, must be judged for “recourse of appeal aiming to undermine national security”, “conspiracy to seize the power of the ‘State unconstitutionally’ and for ‘creation and governance of an extremist group’. The sentences go up to 12 years in prison.
Last year Babariko and Kalesnikava announced the formation of a new party, Vmeste (together, in Russian). The plan was to officially register the party in May this year, but the dictatorship’s growing political repression thwarted the plans.