MINSK -- Viktar Babaryka, a former Belarusian banker whose bid to challenge authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka in last year’s disputed election was halted by his arrest, has told a court during his trial that the corruption charges against him were fabricated as he reiterated his innocence.
"I cannot admit guilt for a crime I didn't commit.... I'm not ashamed of anything, because I didn't do anything illegal, not anything even close to something illegal.... I'm confident that I was always fair and never conducted any activities that violated the laws of Belarus," Babaryka told the court during his final statement on June 28, which unlike previous sessions allowed the public to attend the trial.
He added that his children said "the most important words" to him before the session: "We do not feel ashamed of our dad."
People in the courtroom burst into applause after Babaryka's statement.
The seven other defendants in the high-profile case also gave their final statements.
On June 22, Prosecutor Syarhey Hirhel asked the court to convict Babaryka on charges of bribe taking and money laundering and sentence him to 15 years in prison.
Hirhel also asked Judge Ihar Lyubavitski to sentence the other co-defendants in the case to prison terms between three years and six years.
The judge said on June 28 that the verdicts and sentences in the case will be pronounced on July 6.
Babaryka, a former senior manager at the Russian-owned Belgazprombank, was arrested in June last year after he announced his intention to run for president.
Three days before the arrest, Belarusian authorities took control of the bank and detained several top executives on charges of tax evasion and money laundering.
Babaryka has rejected the charges saying they were invented by authorities because of his political activities.
The Minsk trial is being overseen by judges from the country's 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.
Lukashenka was declared the victor of the August 2020 election, triggering protests by tens of thousands of Belarusians who say the vote was rigged. The demonstrations lasted for months as Belarusians demanded Lukashenka, in power since 1994, to step down and hold fresh elections.
Security officials have cracked down hard on the demonstrators, arresting thousands and pushing most leading opposition figures out of the country.
Several protesters have been killed in the violence and 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.