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'The Dictator's Revenge': Who Are The Six Belarusians Sentenced To Major Prison Terms?

(Left to right:) Dzmitry Papou, Artsyom Sakau, Uladzimer Tsyhanovich, Ihar Losik, Syarhey Tsikhanouski, and Mikalay Statkevich in the defendants' cage during the court hearing where they were sentenced in Homel on December 14.
(Left to right:) Dzmitry Papou, Artsyom Sakau, Uladzimer Tsyhanovich, Ihar Losik, Syarhey Tsikhanouski, and Mikalay Statkevich in the defendants' cage during the court hearing where they were sentenced in Homel on December 14.

One ran a video blog that morphed into a thwarted presidential campaign. Another challenged Alyaksandr Lukashenka for the presidency of Belarus 11 years ago and has been in and out of prison for political protests. Yet another was a blogger whose Telegram channel was Belarus's second-most read.

A court in southeastern Belarus handed down harsh sentences against six Belarusians -- activists, politicians, and a journalist -- who have gained renown in the country for their opposition to Lukashenka's iron-fisted rule.

Now their fame has been further amplified by the prospect of spending at least a decade in prison; 18 years was the longest sentence imposed on December 14, against Syarhey Tsikhanouski.

"The dictator publicly takes revenge on his strongest opponents," his wife, Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who is now the face of the opposition, said in a post to Twitter.

"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 said.

These are the six Belarusians whose sentencings have drawn international outrage.

Syarhey Tsikhanouski

Syarhey Tsikhanouski (file photo)
Syarhey Tsikhanouski (file photo)

B​efore he landed in jail in May 2020, Tsikhanouski ran a video blog on YouTube called The Country For Life, which explored how average Belarusians struggled to eke out livelihoods in a stagnant, low-wage, Soviet-style command economy. The blog drew hundreds of thousands of subscribers and views.

Tsikhanouski, 43, had parlayed that fame into a run for the presidency, seeking to challenge Lukashenka, the former collective-farm boss who has ruled Belarus since 1994.

But Lukashenka's government wasn't having any of it. Tsikhanouski, who dubbed Lukashenka a "cockroach," was jailed repeatedly for holding unauthorized demonstrations and was barred from running in the August 2020 election.

Who Is Syarhey Tsikhanouski And Why Is Belarus Jailing Him For 18 Years?
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Ultimately, he was detained while collecting signatures for his wife to run in his stead, and then hit with other charges, including incitement and organizing mass riots.

Tsikhanouskaya became the united opposition candidate in the election, in which Lukashenka claimed a landslide victory amid widespread allegations of fraud in his favor, sparking nationwide protests that he met with a massive crackdown. She now lives in exile in Lithuania.

The Homel court gave Tsikhanouski 18 years in prison, three more than the maximum sentence stipulated for the most severe charge, according to the rights group Vyasna.

In the courtroom on December 14, Tsikhanouski turned his back on the judge as he read out the sentence. One person who was inside the courtroom told RFE/RL's Belarus Service that he later shouted out, "Long live Belarus!" -- a long-standing slogan of Lukashenka's opponents.

Mikalay Statkevich

Mikalay Statkevich (file photo)
Mikalay Statkevich (file photo)

Statkevich's political dissidence dates back to the Soviet era, when he resigned from the Communist Party in protest at the Soviet government's violent crackdown on the independence movement in Lithuania in January 1991. The violence was a crucial stage in the collapse of the U.S.S.R.

He later became head of the Social Democratic Party in independent Belarus.

He served three years in prison in the mid-2000s for involvement with mass protests against a government measure lifting a limit on how many terms Lukashenka could serve.

Statkevich, 65, challenged Lukashenka for the presidency in 2010 -- and ended up back in prison after a crackdown on opposition groups. He was released in 2017, at a time when Lukashenka was courting the West.

On May 31, 2020, he was arrested as he attended a rally to gather signatures for Tsikhanouskaya's candidacy, and was initially charged with participating in an unauthorized demonstration. The other charges were piled on.

He was sentenced to 14 years in prison.

Ihar Losik

Ihar Losik (file photo)
Ihar Losik (file photo)

With mass media under the tight control of the government, Belarusians have turned to social media and encrypted messaging apps like Telegram for news, unfiltered discussions, and to plan political protests and activity.

Losik helped turn the Telegram channel Belamova, which stands for Belarus of the Brain, into the second-most read channel in the country. (The most-read Telegram app is Nexta Live; one of its lead authors was Raman Pratasevich, who also worked for Losik’s channel. On May 23, Pratasevich was pulled off a passenger plane after the plane was forced to land in Minsk, and was thrown in jail.)

A former fellow under an RFE/RL training program, Losik, 29, is a consultant to RFE/RL's Belarus Service.

In June 2020, police raided the house in western Belarus where Losik lived with his family and arrested him.

Charged initially with violating public order, Losik was later charged with a more serious allegation: incitement to social hatred. In April 2021, while in detention, he tried to slit his wrists and launched a four-day hunger strike.

Ahead Of Verdict, Parents Of Jailed Belarusian Blogger Losik Say He's 'Not Guilty Of Anything'
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He was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

In an impassioned plea recorded before Losik's sentence, his wife Darya, with whom Ihar has a 2-year-old daughter, condemned Lukashenka.

"It is interesting that while you are allegedly fighting against such terrible threats, you have no guts to meet with an ordinary girl, a loving wife and mom," she said. "How will you live on, hug your children, those close to you, knowing what you have done today?"

Uladzimer Tsyhanovich

Uladzimer Tsyhanovich (file photo)
Uladzimer Tsyhanovich (file photo)

Tsyhanovich, 41, is another activist who garnered a measure of fame via social media: a political YouTube channel called MozgON.

An ally and supporter of Tsikhanouski, he was detained in June 2020, initially on similar charges. But those charges were later reclassified while he was still in custody, upgraded to the organization of mass riots and incitement to social hatred.

He was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Artsyom Sakau and Dzmitry Papou

Artsyom Sakau (file photo)
Artsyom Sakau (file photo)

Sakau, a political activist, and Papou, another blogger, are both closely linked to Tsikhanouski's political campaign.

Sakau, 27, was a member of the nominating group that sought to gather signatures for Tsikhanouskaya after her husband was barred from running. On May 31, 2020, two days after joining a public demonstration in support of her candidacy, he was arrested and charged with actions aiming to disturb public order.

Those charges were later upgraded to organization of mass riots and incitement to social hatred.​

Dzmitry Papou (file photo)
Dzmitry Papou (file photo)

Papou was the moderator of social-media accounts linked to Tsikhanouski's YouTube channel.

Both Papou and Sakau received 16 years in prison.

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

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