U.S. and U.K officials have continued calls for Belarusian political prisoners to be released as more sentences for opposition leaders, members of the media, activists and labor rights demonstrators have been announced by one of Russia’s closest allies. Now, a former challenger for the country’s presidency has been sentenced to 15 years for leading opposition rallies in what the courts have described as a “conspiracy to seize power.” 

Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko’s government was actively jailing nearly 1500 political prisoners as of Jan. 2023, according to the human rights NGO Viasna, which released an annual report detailing the human rights situation in the country since the 2020 elections.  On March 3, a Minsk court announced 7 to 10-year prison sentences for Viasna’s leadership. 

Last week, Belarusian state media agency Belta announced that prosecutors in Belarus had asked the court to jail Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and a number of co-defendants on charges of illegal extremism including “conspiracy to seize power.” Tikhanovskaya ran against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in 2020.

The country’s contested presidential elections in 2020 led to large-scale protests in Belarus never seen in the country before. Lukashenko has been president since the creation of the office in 1994. 

Prosecutors requested that Tsikhanouskaya, who declared herself the leader of Belarus after the contested elections, be sentenced to 19 years in prison. 

Prosecutors also recommended a 19-year sentence for Tsikhanouskaya’s aide Pavel Latushko, and 12-year sentences for three others, The Moscow Times reports.

Early Monday, Mar. 6, a Belarusian court sentenced Tikhanovskaya in absentia to 15 years in prison, according to the AFP (Agence France Presse). Tsikhanouskaya currently lives in exile in Lithuania.

“15 years of prison. This is how the regime “rewarded” my work for democratic changes in Belarus,” Tikhanovskaya Tweeted on Monday. 

“But today I don’t think about my own sentence. I think about thousands of innocents, detained & sentenced to real prison terms. I won’t stop until each of them is released.”

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which includes 57 member states including Russia, Ukraine, the U.S. and Belarus, called the 2020 election “neither free nor fair.” 

A report by the OSCE also found “the Belarusian authorities engaged in sustained and systematic violations and abuses of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of the Belarusian people.” 

The OSCE was started during the Cold War as a way to increase dialogue between the East and West on multiple issues. 

“It is deeply regrettable that the Lukashenka regime continues to flagrantly violate and abuse human rights and fundamental freedoms in Belarus,” Michael Carpenter, ambassador to the U.S mission of the OSCE, said to their permanent council earlier this month as more political prisoners were sentenced in Belarus. 

The latest round of sentencings included a popular Belarusian-Polish journalist, Andrzej Poczobut, who was sentenced on Feb. 8, 2023 to eight years in prison. He was sentenced on what Carpenter described as false charges after being targeted for his work covering election-related protests and for his advocacy in favor of the Polish minority in Belarus. 

The Polish minority in the country has purportedly been a target of the Belarusian government, as Tatiana Gergalyk reported for Deutsche Welle.

“Let me be clear, independent journalism is not a crime. The actions of Belarusian government are at odds with their obligations under international law and their OSCE commitments,” Deputy Ambassador Deirdre Brown of the U.K mission to the OSCE said in a statement

Brown pointed to at least 33 people imprisoned in Belarus who are members of the media.

“There are over 1,400 political prisoners in Belarus. Hundreds of ordinary people are being brutally punished for protesting the fraudulent 2020 Presidential election,” Brown said

On February 9, Belarusian prosecutors pursued a 12-year prison sentence for Ales Bialiatski, a 2022 Nobel Peace Prize laureate and founder of the Viasna human rights center, on what Carpenter called “ridiculous politically motivated charges related to his decades-long work as a leading human rights defender and his efforts as well to advance democracy in Belarus.”

In a much-anticipated decision, Bialiatski was sentenced to 10 years in prison on March 3 along with Viasnas Deputy chair Valiantsin Stefanovic receiving 9 years and lawyer Ulladzimir Labkovich receiving 7 years in prison according to Viasna. 

“And yet, we are not surprised. Sentences of 7-10 years in detention have become a regular part of the lexicon of repression utilized by the Lukashenka regime since the fraudulent presidential election of August 2020,” the U.S. Embassy in Belarus said in a statement.

“Obviously, all autocrats don’t like dissent and they don’t like journalists or the media, so that’s standard playbook authoritarianism,” Tom Ginsburg, a comparative and international law professor at the University of Chicago who released the book “Democracies and International Law” in 2021, told The Crime Report after journalist Andrzej Poczobut’s sentence was announced. 

“I just think that probably his motive is not to hold political prisoners as such, it’s to ensure that internal dissent is disincentivized,” Ginsburg said.

Calls for Belarus to release prisoners have been ongoing since a series of anti-government protests led to the arrests of more than 600 shortly after the election took place in September 2020, as the BBC reported at the time. 

On Feb. 10 of this year, U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh announced his explicit opposition to the sentencing of six trade union leaders in Belarus whose charges included ‘harming national security,’ and ‘inciting social hatred’.

“We call on the Lukashenka regime of Belarus to end its human and labor rights abuses, which include arbitrary arrests, acts of violence, harassment and intimidation against citizens in Belarus, including trade unionists who exercise their human and labor rights,” Walsh said. “Specifically, we urge the immediate and unconditional release of all trade union leaders and members, and the more than 1,400 political prisoners unjustly imprisoned for participating in peaceful assemblies or for exercising their fundamental freedoms.”

It isn’t that unusual for the U.S. to weigh in on this kind of abuse of criminal justice systems abroad. 

“Biden has been making anti-remarks that are critical of an authoritarian regime, linking the war in Ukraine with Putin’s authoritarianism, and under such circumstances, it’s consistent for leadership in the United Kingdom, in the United States of America, to make similar comments about Belarus,” Julie George told The Crime Report. George is a professor of comparative and international politics with a focus on ethnicity and identity at the City University of New York 

Authoritarian governments like Belarus could be key allies to watch in Russia’s war with Ukraine.

“[Belarus] is another authoritarian regime that is actively participating in helping Putin complete his war,” George said. 

Although Belarus has yet to give troops to the war in Ukraine, George pointed out that the government has allowed their land to be used as a staging ground for Putin’s war.

“Belarus however, permits Russian troops to move through Belorussia in order to attack Ukraine from the north,” George said.

Audrey Nielsen contributed reporting to this story.

Zoltan Lucas

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