MINSK -- Viktar Babaryka, a former Belarusian banker whose bid to challenge Alyaksandr Lukashenka in last year’s disputed presidential election was halted by his arrest, is due to go on trial on February 17.
The announcement on Babaryka’s Telegram channel on February 4 came shortly after a preliminary hearing at a district court in Minsk earlier in the day at which Babaryka was not present.
Several co-defendants were in court, including six men, who made deals with investigators in hopes of facing lesser charges.
The court case is due to be heard by the Belarusian Supreme Court, a move that was criticized last week by Babaryka’s lawyer, Dzmitry Layeuski, who said that would deny them any chance of appeal in the event of a guilty verdict.
Not long after he announced his intention to run for president, Babaryka, a former senior manager at the Russian-owned Belgazprombank, was arrested in June along with his son, Eduard, on charges of money laundering, bribery, and tax evasion.
Three days before their arrest, Belarusian authorities took control of the bank and detained more than a dozen top executives on charges of tax evasion and money laundering.
All of the accused reject the charges as politically motivated.
Lukashenka was declared the victor of the August 9 election, triggering protests by tens of thousands of Belarusians who say the vote was rigged.
Protests have continued since then to demand the resignation of Lukashenka, who has been in power since 1994.
Security officials have cracked down hard on the demonstrators, arresting thousands and pushing most top opposition figures out of the country.
Several protesters have been killed in the violence and several rights organizations say there is credible evidence of torture being used against some of those detained.
Lukashenka denies voter fraud and has refused to negotiate with the opposition led by Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya who supporters say actually won the August election.
The European Union, the United States, Canada, and other countries have refused to recognize Lukashenka, 66, as the legitimate leader of Belarus and have slapped him and senior Belarusian officials with sanctions in response to the "falsification" of the vote and the postelection crackdown.