MINSK -- The trial of Belarusian video blogger Syarhey Tsikhanouski and several other defendants, including former presidential candidate Mikalay Statkevich and popular blogger and RFE/RL consultant Ihar Losik, has begun inside a detention center in the southeastern city of Homel.
Tsikhanouski, a leading opposition figure who was arrested after expressing his willingness to challenge Alyaksandr Lukashenka in last year's disputed presidential election, is accused of organizing mass disorder, inciting social hatred, impeding the activities of the Central Election Commission, and organizing activities that disrupt social order.
If found guilty of the charges, which are widely considered to have been trumped-up, he faces up to 15 years in prison.
The others on trial include opposition activists Uladzimer Tsyhanovich, Artsyom Sakau, and Dzmitry Papou.
RFE/RL correspondents reported from the site that traffic police and riot police cordoned the building of the detention center and a street close to the detention center were cleared late on June 23.
Early on June 24 a riot police bus and a vehicle with men in civilian clothes appeared at the site. All streets leading to the detention center, except one were blocked.
Several diplomats from European Union nations came to the site at around 10 a.m., but it was not clear whether they were allowed in.
Only journalists working for state media were allowed to enter the building.
Lyudmila Hladkaya of the state publication Belarus Today published a video which showed the defendants entering a cage in the room where the trial is taking place.
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.
Statkevich greeted everyone in the room by saying "Zhyve Belarus!" (Long Live Belarus!), while Tsikhanouski exclaimed "What a closed process!" when seeing many state media reporters in the room.
Tsikhanouski was the owner of a popular Belarusian YouTube channel called "The Country for Life" when he announced his willingness to run against Lukashenka after using the channel to challenge and criticize Belarusian authorities.
He was arrested in May 2020 shortly after election officials rejected his candidacy. He has remained in pretrial detention since then.
His wife, Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, took over the election campaign and became the main challenger to Lukashenka, who has been the autocratic ruler of the country since 1994. Tsikhanouskaya and her supporters claim the election was rigged, insisting that she won the vote.
The official results handing Lukashenka a landslide victory sparked months of mass protests and a violent crackdown on the opposition and demonstrators. Thousands of people, including journalists working to cover the developments, have been detained.
Many have been injured and there are widespread allegations of systemic torture within Belarusian detention centers. More than 1,800 criminal cases have been filed against demonstrators.
Tsikhanouskaya and other leading opposition figures have left the country fearing reprisal. Tsikhanouskaya currently lives in Lithuania with her children.
Losik, who is among hundreds of political prisoners caught up in the crackdown, has been 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.
RFE/RL President Jamie Fly on June 24 called Losik's trial a "mockery of justice," and reiterated his call for Belarusian authorities to release him "immediately and without condition."
"As his wife Darya has so eloquently stated before, Ihar has faced unimaginable physical and psychological pressures over the past year, to include two debilitating hunger strikes. Instead of forcing Ihar to take part in this contemptible mockery of justice, Belarusian authorities should release him immediately and without condition, so that he can be reunited with his family," Fly said.