A court in Belarus has delivered verdicts and harsh sentences to a group of bloggers, opposition activists, and the husband of exiled opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, all of whom were rounded up by security officials before a controversial presidential election that saw authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka claim a sixth term in power despite widespread belief that the vote was rigged.
Rights groups consider all six of those who were sentenced on December 14 behind closed doors in the southeastern city of Homel to be political prisoners, with the 173-day trial, one of the longest in Belarus’s history, widely condemned as a sham.
The United States and the European Union condemned the sentences.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement that “politically motivated convictions are further evidence of the regime’s disregard for these international obligations as well as for the human rights and fundamental freedoms of Belarusians.”
EU foreign affairs spokesman Peter Stano also condemned the "harsh and unfounded" prison terms.
"These sentences are part of the ongoing brutal and systematic repression of all independent voices in Belarus," Stano said. "The EU strongly condemns these continued, flagrant violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms by the Minsk regime."
The crackdown on the pro-democracy movement has only intensified since mass protests erupted in the wake of Lukashenka's August 2020 reelection, which is not recognized by the opposition and the West.
Popular video blogger Syarhey Tsikhanouski, who intended to run against Lukashenka before being disqualified and ultimately arrested ahead of the election, was sentenced to 18 years in prison by the court for organizing mass disorder, inciting social hatred, impeding the activities of the Central Election Commission, and organizing activities that disrupted social order.
A picture from the courtroom showed a defiant Tsikhanouski with his back turned to the judge while the sentence was being read out. He later shouted out, "Long live Belarus!" one witness who was inside the courtroom told RFE/RL's Belarus service.
After being disqualified, his political novice wife, Tsikhanouskaya, mobilized voters and won the election, according to the opposition and Western countries.
Tsikhanouskaya has been living in exile in Lithuania since fleeing Belarus after the election due to concerns about her safety and that of the couple's two children.
"The very existence of these people is a crime for the regime. They're repressed for wanting to live in a free Belarus," Tsikhanouskaya said in a tweet immediately after news of the verdict broke.
"The dictator publicly takes revenge on his strongest opponents. While hiding the political prisoners in closed trials, he hopes to continue repressions in silence. But the whole world watches. We won't stop," she added.
Another blogger, Ihar Losik, who is also an RFE/RL consultant, was handed a sentence of 15 years.
Losik, who is among hundreds of political prisoners caught up in the crackdown, has been held in pretrial detention since June 2020. He was initially charged with allegedly using his popular Telegram channel to "prepare to disrupt public order" ahead of the August election.
In April, he tried to slit his wrists and launched a four-day hunger strike after being informed of new, unspecified charges. He had previously launched a six-week hunger strike to protest the original charges.
Losik's wife angrily chided officials from the judiciary for having "trampled on every piece of legislation, all legal norms, even though your job is to protect them."
But she saved her harshest words for Lukashenka, excoriating him for trying to look "so brave" in state media.
"It is interesting that while you are allegedly fighting against such terrible threats, you have no guts to meet with one ordinary girl, a loving wife and mom,” she told RFE/RL's Belarus Service.
“Let's meet and I will tell you what our family goes through thanks to your subordinates, how it feels to live through my husband’s two hunger strikes, to learn that he tried to commit suicide right in front of one of your so-called investigators. You said you do not fight women, but my case and the cases of dozens of female political prisoners prove otherwise."
RFE/RL President Jamie Fly called Lukashenka's treatment of Losik and other journalists “reprehensible.”
"The closed-door trial he and his co-defendants have endured for the past five months has been an outrageous travesty of justice. We again call on the Lukashenka regime to stop their assault on news organizations and journalists and bloggers like Ihar and let him return to his wife and daughter," Fly said ahead of the verdict.
Among the other defendants in the trial, former presidential candidate Mikalay Statkevich received a prison sentence of 14 years, opposition activist Uladzimer Tsyhanovich 15 years, activist Artsyom Sakau 16 years, and another activist, Dzmitry Papou, 16 years.
The defendants, who have been in pretrial detention since their arrests, are accused of various alleged crimes, including organizing mass disorder, inciting social hatred, impeding the activities of the Central Election Commission, and organizing activities that disrupt social order. It’s unclear why some of the defendants are being tried together or the reason for the trial being held behind closed doors.
In the wake of the election, tens of thousands of people were detained and human rights activists say more than 800 people are considered political prisoners.
Independent media, opposition social-media channels, and civil society groups have also been harassed and shut down, while much of the opposition is either in prison or exile.
One opposition figure, Maryya Kalesnikava, was sentenced to 11 years in prison in September for conspiracy to seize power, calls for action to damage national security, and calls for actions damaging national security by trying to create an extremist group.
Kalesnikava was snatched from the streets of Minsk days earlier by masked men along with two staffers. The three were driven early the next day to the border, where authorities told them to cross into Ukraine.
Security officers reportedly failed to deport Kalesnikava because she ripped her passport into small pieces after they arrived in the no-man's-land between Belarus and Ukraine. Her two associates entered Ukraine, but with no valid passport, Kalesnikava remained in the country and was subsequently detained.
In late September, she won the Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize awarded annually by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) to honor "outstanding" civil society action in the defense of human rights.