HOMEL, Belarus -- Four associates of Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms for organizing protests against authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka in the southeastern city of Homel.
Judge Alyaksey Khlyshchankou of the Chyhunachny district court on May 4 sentenced Tatsyana Kaneuskaya, Dzmitry Ivashkou, and Alyaksandr Shabalin to six years in prison each, and Yury Ulasau to 6 1/2 years in prison.
They were found guilty of organizing mass disorder and planning to seize administrative buildings in Homel. Ulasau was additionally found guilty of publicly insulting police officers.
The four were members of Tsikhanouskaya's campaign team and were arrested just days before an August 9, 2020 presidential election as they urged people to demonstrate for independent candidates to be allowed to be registered for the vote.
They all rejected the charges, calling them politically motivated.
Crisis In Belarus
Read our ongoing coverage as Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka continues his brutal crackdown on NGOs, activists, and independent media following the August 2020 presidential election, widely seen as fraudulent.
Kaneuskaya's sons, Alyaksey and Alyaksandr Kaneuski, said given the current crackdown against dissent by Lukashenka, the prison sentences were expected.
"We do not have real courts, what we have are kangaroo courts. They just carry out whatever they are instructed to do by those who are in power," Alyaksandr Kaneuski said after the sentences were announced.
Dzmitry Ivashkou's wife Svyatlana said she hopes that the four activists "will not stay behind bars too long."
"They all greeted the sentences with smiles. They are holding up quite well. Will we appeal? Well, the state has penalized them and now how does one appeal against the state? We will, for sure, write appeals, but that is to make sure no one in the future says that we gave up and admitted guilt," Svyatlana Ivashkova said, adding her husband and her colleagues had done nothing illegal.
Prior to the election, police detained dozens of activists and politicians as they held rallies to collect the signatures necessary to register independent presidential candidates for the vote.
Tsikhanouskaya became a candidate after her husband, well-known vlogger Syarhey Tsikhanouski, was incarcerated for openly expressing his intention to run for president.
Tens of thousands of Belarusians then took the streets for several months after a presidential poll in which Lukashenka claimed a landslide victory.
The demonstrators, who say the vote was rigged, have demanded Lukashenka step down and new elections be held, but Belarus's strongman has been defiant.
Security officials have arrested thousands in the protests, in a crackdown that has become more brutal with each passing month.
Several protesters have been killed in the violence and some rights organizations say there is credible evidence of torture being used against some of those detained.
In response to the ongoing crackdown, the West has slapped sanctions on top Belarusian officials. Many countries, including the United States, as well as the European Union, have refused to recognize Lukashenka as the legitimate leader of the former Soviet republic.