MINSK -- Viktar Babaryka, a former Belarusian banker whose bid to challenge Alyaksandr Lukashenka in last year's presidential election was halted by his arrest, and his six co-defendants have gone on trial.
Judge Ihar Lyubavitski rejected several motions by Babaryka's defense team as the trial started on February 17, including a request to transfer Babaryka from a pretrial detention center to house arrest and to allow independent journalists and reporters of online media outlets to attend the trial at Minsk's Moscow district court.
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.
Austrian, British, EU, and U.S. diplomats were seen among those who came to the high-profile trial.
Dozens of people were not able to get inside the court building and remained outside to support Babaryka. Those who were allowed to enter the building were forbidden from bringing in telephones and other electronics with them.
The case is being heard by judges from the Belarusian 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 case of a guilty verdict.
Crisis In Belarus
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.
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 Lukashenka, in power since 1994, step down.
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, 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 postelection crackdown.