A Belarusian opposition leader and former ally of President Alexander Lukashenko received a 17-year prison sentence in absentia Friday on charges that included forming an extremist group and discrediting Belarus.
Valery Tsepkalo, 58, was also fined around $14,000 and barred from holding public office for five years following a closed-door trial that resulted in his conviction. Other charges included issuing calls to seize power, slander and insulting the country’s president.
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Tsepkalo fled to Russia in 2020 after the Central Election Commission barred him and eight other candidates from challenging Lukashenko in a presidential election that year. He later moved to Ukraine, Latvia and Greece.
According to the Belarusian human rights center Viasna, Tsepkalo could not defend himself in court or get acquainted with the details of the case against him because he had no contact with the state lawyer.
A prominent opponent of autocratic Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has been sentenced to 17 years in prison. (Photo by NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP via Getty Images)
His wife went on to support the candidacy of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who decided to run against Lukashenko in place of her jailed husband. Tsikhanouskaya contested the official election results that showed the incumbent winning a sixth term by a wide margin, and later fled Belarus as well.
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Another opposition politician who finished fourth in the election, Andrey Dzmitryeu, was arrested in Minsk and imprisoned at the beginning of the year.
Lukashenko’s August 2020 reelection set off huge antigovernment protests following an election that the opposition and the West denounced as having been rigged.
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Belarusian authorities responded to the demonstrations with a major crackdown that saw more than 35,000 people arrested, thousands beaten by police and dozens of media outlets and nongovernmental organizations shut. Lukashenko has ruled Belarus since 2004.