Belarus sentences two opponents to 12 years in prison

TALLINN, Estonia (HPD) — Belarusian authorities on Monday handed down lengthy jail sentences to two opposition activists who fled the country, the first court verdict against dissidents in absentia.

A court in Minsk sentenced Aliaksandra Herasimenia and Alexander Opeikin each to 12 years in jail, on charges of seeking sanctions and undermining Belarus’ national security.

Herasimenia, a former swimmer and three-time Olympic medalist, and Opeikin founded the Sports Solidarity Foundation for Belarus, which united hundreds of Belarusian athletes critical of the authoritarian regime of President Alexander Lukahsenko.

Belarus was rocked by huge protests after disputed elections in August 2020, which Lukashenko says he won and which are considered fraudulent by both the Belarusian opposition and the West. The authorities responded to the protests with a strong crackdown in which more than 35,000 people were arrested and thousands were beaten by police officers. As a result, the West imposed punitive economic sanctions.

The foundation created by Herasimenia and Opeikin contributed to the cancellation of several sporting events in Belarus in 2021, including an athletics championship and a hockey championship, which was a humiliation for Lukahsenko, who is a sports lover and plays hockey.

The authorities accuse the two activists of threatening national security. The trial was held behind closed doors and without the presence of the defendants, in accordance with a law that Lukashenko signed in July that allows courts to try Belarusians who have fled the country in absentia.

In addition to the prison sentence, the court ordered the confiscation of Herasimenia’s apartment, her car and $48,000 that she had in her bank accounts.

According to Belarus’s main human rights group, Viasna, there are 1,439 political prisoners currently in the country.

Opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who has also been persecuted and lives in exile in Lithuania, condemned the sentences imposed on Herasimenia and Opeikin on Monday.

“A shame! … This is how the regime tries to punish opponents in exile,” Tsikhanouskaya tweeted. “The regime can’t stop them, but they confiscated their property in Belarus, including a car and an apartment.”

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