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opponents jailed or forced into exile

Russia ally Belarus on Monday jailed a dozen opponents of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko for terms of up to 25 years.

The move comes a week after Lukashenko accused Ukraine of planning an attack on its ex-Soviet neighbour and announced plans for a joint deployment of troops with Moscow for “defensive” purposes.

The jail sentences continue a crackdown on the opposition and media that began in earnest in 2020 after Lukashenko claimed a sixth term in disputed elections that sparked mass protests.

– Opponents jailed –

The leader of an activist group, Avtukhovich was jailed on Monday to 25 years, one of the heaviest sentences handed down recently in the reclusive country.

Avtukhovich and his group are accused of setting a car and a policeman’s house on fire in the western Belarusian city of Grodno in 2020.

Nine of the activists were given sentences ranging from 15 to 20 years in prison, including Orthodox priest Sergei Rezanovich jailed for 16 years.

The founder of the rights group Viasna and 2022 Nobel Peace Prize co-laureate Ales Bialiatski was jailed in July 2021.

He was arrested on charges of tax evasion, a move seen by fellow dissidents as a thinly veiled attempt to silence him.

Tikhanovsky, a charismatic YouTube blogger, galvanised the opposition when he ran for president to try to topple Lukashenko.

But Belarusian authorities cut his campaign short by arresting him on charges of violating public order ahead of the August 2020 vote and then keeping him behind bars. 

Tikhanovsky’s wife Svetlana Tikhanovskaya then ran in his place.

In December 2021, he was sentenced to 18 years in prison guilty of organising riots, inciting social hatred and other charges.

Former banker Babaryko — one of the most popular politicians in Belarus — was arrested and charged with fraud just as he was about to announce his presidential candidacy in June 2020.

In July 2021, he was sentenced to 14 years in prison in a maximum security facility on charges of receiving bribes and of money laundering when he was head of the Belarusian branch of a bank belonging to Russian energy giant Gazprom.

He was also ordered to pay several million euros in damages.

Veteran opposition figure Statkevich was detained while on his way to an opposition rally in 2020 and put on trial behind closed doors with Tikhanovsky. 

Statkevich had already spent five years behind bars, most of it in solitary confinement, after a failed run for president against Lukashenko in 2010.

Severinets, co-chair of the Belarusian Christian Democracy party, was arrested in June 2020 after a picket in support of opposition candidates.

In May 2021, a Minsk court sentenced him to seven years in prison for “organising mass unrest” even though he had been in detention throughout the huge demonstrations that followed Lukashenko’s disputed victory.

– MARIA KOLESNIKOVA –   

In September 2021, a Belarusian court sentenced one of a trio of female…

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