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Belarus Hands Out Its Biggest Politically Motivated Sentence Yet. Who Are The Defendants In the Autukhovich Case?

 The 12 defendants in the Autukhovich case were sentenced to almost 200 years in prison.
The 12 defendants in the Autukhovich case were sentenced to almost 200 years in prison.

In the five-month trial that became known as the "Autukhovich case," the 12 defendants repeatedly stated that the case against them was fabricated and politically motivated -- a common fate for those who oppose the authoritarian regime of Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

Belarusian courts, however, had never handed down a sentence of this magnitude for a political opponent: 25 years in prison for Mikalay Autukhovich, a businessman and activist charged with high treason and terrorism. The other 11 who stood trial were sentenced to a total of 169.6 years in prison.

In its October 17 verdict, a court in the western city of Hrodna accused Autukhovich of plotting a terrorist attack and conspiring to seize power.

Autukhovich, 59, is a former military officer and a veteran of the Soviet war in Afghanistan. He has helped the opposition raise funds for their efforts to oppose Lukashenka, who in August 2020 claimed a sixth term in power in an election marred by accusations of rigging by the opposition and the West.

Investigators said Autukhovich and the group he led, which had been detained for 22 months, carried out arson attacks on police vehicles and planned attacks on their property. Autukhovich has rejected all of the charges.

The group indictment included the charges of "act of terrorism," "conspiracy to seize power by unconstitutional means," "illegal actions in relation to firearms and ammunition," "inciting enmity," and "calls for actions that harm the national security of Belarus."

The trial was conducted by Maksim Filatau, a judge who is under European Union sanctions for his support of the regime and its violent suppression of dissent following the disputed election. He had previously led the sentencing of activist Vitold Ashurak, who later died under mysterious circumstances at the Shklou prison in eastern Belarus in 2021.

The Accused

Mikalay Autukhovich

Autukhovich was sentenced to 25 years in prison, including the first five years in a cell and then 20 at a maximum-security prison facility, ordered to pay the equivalent of a $12,600 fine, and stripped of his rank of retired ensign.

He had served as an officer in the Soviet war in Afghanistan. In independent Belarus, he owned a taxi service in Vaukavysk. He had frequent run-ins with the local authorities. In 2004, he tried to become a member of parliament; independent sociologists even certified his victory in the first round.

Mikalay Autukhovich, Uladzimer Hundar Hundar, and Volha Mayorava
Mikalay Autukhovich, Uladzimer Hundar Hundar, and Volha Mayorava

Autukhovich previously received two prison terms and both times was declared a political prisoner. He went on extended hunger strikes in prison, ran away from the police, and was put under house arrest.

In 2010, Autukhovich was tried for plotting an assassination attempt on the chairman of the Hrodna Regional Executive Committee, Uladzimer Savchanka, and the deputy taxes and fees minister, Vasil Kamyanko. He was sentenced to 5 1/2 years. He was released in 2014.

Paval Sava

Prosecutors maintained that Autukhovich and Sava set fire to two police cars and the house of a Vaukavysk district official. The indictment also stated that Sava and Autukhovich were planning to commit terrorist acts. Sava was sentenced to 20 years at an enhanced-security prison.

Halina Dzerbysh

Dzerbysh, a pensioner from the agricultural town of Abukhau in the Hrodna district, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for allegedly loaning her car to Autukhovich for "reconnaissance purposes."

Volha Mayorava

Mayorava, a former United Civic Party activist, is accused of running social media for Autukhovich's "To Freedom" campaign. She was detained in the Krupski district and ultimately sentenced to 20 years in prison.

The defendants, kept in separate cages, attend their trial at a Hrodna court in July.
The defendants, kept in separate cages, attend their trial at a Hrodna court in July.

Viktar Snehur

Hailing from the southeastern city of Homel, Snehur is accused of helping Autukhovich to cross the border. He was sentenced to 19 years in prison.

Uladzimer Hundar

Hundar, a 62-year-old local historian from the central city of Baranavichy who is wheelchair-bound, was sentenced to 18 years at an enhanced-security prison. He was previously sentenced to three years for "violence against an official."

Syarhey, Lyubov, and Paval Razanovich

The family of an Orthodox priest from the Moscow district in the western city of Brest, Syarhey Razanovich, is also involved in the case. He was the abbot of the church in the village of Stsyapanki in the Zhabinka district. His wife, Lyubov, knew Autukhovich from Brest, where she owned a taxi service. Their son, Paval, worked in law enforcement in Brest. Autukhovich was arrested while at their home.

The court said automatic weapons, pistols, and explosives were discovered during a search of the Razanovichs's property. Syarhey and Paval were sentenced to 16 years each in prison, and Lyubov was sentenced to 15 years.

Autukhovich was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
Autukhovich was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Iryna and Anton Melkher

Another pensioner, Iryna Melkher, and her son, Anton, are also from Brest. Irina was sentenced to 17 years, while Anton was given 2 1/2 years in prison.

Iryna Harachkina

Harachkina, a figure skater, is Autukhovich's former partner. They met in 2014. She was sentenced to six years and one month in prison.

Claims Of Torture

Autukhovich started a dry hunger strike on July 11, which he continued for 21 days, out of protest against being denied letters. On the 22nd day, he started up liquids, but his health had deteriorated. He was placed on a drip the same day.

On July 27, a medical exam revealed that Autukhovich's kidneys had started to fail, and he showed signs of severe dehydration. Doctors said he had high blood sugar, low blood pressure, an increased heart rate, severe weakness, dizziness, and his eyes were swollen shut.

Despite his poor health, he was forced to attend the trial and was told to stand when addressed, even though he complained that it was difficult for him.

During a court examination, the prison doctor dismissed Autukhovich's health issues as "common ailments."

Hundar also went on hunger strike in protest at what he said was incessant torture by prison guards, including being forced to strip before the trial. The political prisoner's wife said that as a result he lost a lot of weight and "went gray." Hundar stopped the hunger strike when "some results appeared," according to the Belarusian human rights group Vyasna.

Four of the defendants -- Hundar, Dzerbysh, Mayorava, and Iryna Melkher -- signed a letter in which they named the security guards responsible for the threats to their lives and health.

"These people either falsified materials...or they supported the accusation, ignoring the complete absence of any evidence of our guilt, and now they turn a blind eye to lawlessness rather than directly making decisions about our repression," they wrote.

"It is difficult to predict what may befall each of us and by whose hands it will be done," they added.

As a result, the four were repeatedly placed in solitary confinement.

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