The Biden administration on Tuesday forcefully condemned an 18-year jail sentence handed down to the husband of 2020 opposition presidential candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya calling it another “unjust” and “vengeful” act by the regime of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
Siarhei Tsikhanouski, a pro-democracy activist whose arrest in 2020 led his wife to take up his planned presidential candidacy, was accused of organizing mass unrest, impeding government election officials and inciting hatred against the regime. Five other opposition figures also were given sentences of 14 to 16 years after a six-month trial held behind closed doors.
It was a hotly disputed presidential election in August 2020, condemned by international observers as having been rigged in Mr. Lukashenko’s favor, that set off massive pro-democracy street protests and a government crackdown that forced Mrs. Tsikhanouskaya to flee abroad.
“It is clear whom the regime most fears,” U.S. Ambassador to Belarus Julie Fisher tweeted shortly after the verdicts were made public. “The United States alongside our partners will continue efforts to secure the unconditional release of all political prisoners, including Siarhei Tsikhanouski, Ihar Losik and all those facing unjust detention and vengeful verdicts.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken, currently on a tour of Asia, issued a statement condemning the Belarusian government’s handling of the case, saying none of the defendants deserved the harsh sentences meted out.
“Belarus has obligations under international law … to respect the right to a fair trial by an independent and impartial tribunal, as well as the rights of the individual to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly,” Mr. Blinken said in a statement issued by the State Department. “Regrettably, these sentences are further evidence of the regime’s disregard for these international obligations as well as for the human rights and fundamental freedoms of Belarusians. The Belarusian people deserve better.”
Mrs. Tsikhanouskaya also denounced the verdicts, saying in a statement that the “dictator” Mr. Lukashenko “publicly takes revenge on his strongest opponents.”
“While hiding the political prisoners in closed trials, he hopes to continue repressions in silence,” she added. “But the whole world watches. We won’t stop.”
The unrest of the past 18 months is considered the biggest challenge yet to the 27-year rule of Mr. Lukashenko, a onetime state farm manager in the former Soviet republic. He has resorted to an ever stronger crackdown on dissidents and strengthened ties with Russia in the face of economic and diplomatic sanctions from the U.S. and the European Union.
Mr. Tsikhanouski, a popular blogger and anti-government activist before his detention, has already spent 20 months in jail. The Associated Press reported that state media video showed a drawn Mr. Tsikhanouski at the closed hearing in the southeastern city of Homel, along with other defendants.
Images from the proceedings showed a defiant Mr. Tsikhanouski turning his back to the judge as the sentence was being read out. A witness inside the courtroom told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that the defendant shouted “Long live Belarus!” after learning of his fate.
Another popular blogger who also stood trial alongside Mr. Tsikhanouski, 29-year-old Ihar Losik, was handed a 15-year sentence. Mr. Losik had been staging a hunger strike in jail to protest his prosecution.
• This article was based in part on wire service reports.