MINSK -- A court in Belarus has sentenced former presidential contender Viktar Babaryka to 14 years in prison on corruption charges.
Babaryka's defense team said before the ruling that the charges against their client had been fabricated to thwart his political ambitions.
Babaryka, the former head of the Russian-owned Belgazprombank, was arrested in June 2020 as he attempted to register as a candidate to run against authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka in a presidential vote critics and observers say was massively rigged.
Prosecutor Syarhey Hirhel had asked the court in Minsk to convict Babaryka on charges of bribe-taking and money laundering and sentence him to 15 years in prison.
Hirhel also asked Judge Ihar Lyubavitski on June 22 to sentence the other co-defendants in the case to prison terms between three years and six years.
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Read our ongoing coverage as Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka ramps up pressure on NGOs and independent media as part of a brutal crackdown against protesters and the opposition following an August 2020 election widely considered fraudulent.
Babaryka told the court during his final statement on June 28 that the corruption charges against him were fabricated and reiterated his innocence.
"I cannot admit guilt for a crime that I did not commit.... I'm not ashamed of anything, because I didn't do anything illegal, not anything even close to something illegal.... I'm confident that I was always fair and never conducted any activities that violated the laws of Belarus," Babaryka said.
He added that his children said "the most important words" to him before the session: "We do not feel ashamed of our dad."
People in the courtroom burst into applause after Babaryka's statement. Unlike previous sessions, the public was allowed to attend the last hearing.
The seven other defendants in the high-profile case also gave their final statements.
Three days before Babaryka's arrest last year, Belarusian authorities took control of Belgazprombank and detained several top executives on charges of tax evasion and money laundering.
The trial was held in the premises of the Moscow district court in Minsk by judges from the country's Supreme Court, a move that has been criticized by Babaryka and his defense team, who said that would deny them any chance of appeal in the case of a guilty verdict.
Lukashenka was declared the victor of the August 2020 election, triggering protests by tens of thousands of Belarusians who say the vote was rigged. The demonstrations lasted for months as Belarusians demanded Lukashenka, in power since 1994, step down and hold fresh elections.