TALLINN, Estonia ( Associated Press) — Belarusian authorities sentenced two opposition activists who fled the country to long prison terms Monday, the first court ruling against dissidents in absentia.
A court in Minsk sentenced Aliaksandra Herasimenia and Alexander Opikin to 12 years in prison each for seeking sanctions and undermining Belarus’ national security.
Herasimania, 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 Lukashenko.
Mass protests erupted in Belarus in August 2020 after disputed elections, which Lukashenko says he won and which are considered fraudulent by both the Belarusian opposition and the West. Authorities responded to the protests with a crackdown that saw more than 35,000 people arrested and thousands beaten by police officers. As a result, the West imposed punitive economic sanctions.
The foundation created by Herasimania and Opeikin contributed to the cancellation of several sporting events, including the athletics championships and hockey championships in Belarus in 2021, which was an insult to Lukashenko, who is a sports lover and plays hockey.
Authorities charged the two activists with endangering national security. The trial was held behind closed doors and without the presence of the defendants, in accordance with a law 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 Herasimania’s apartment, his car, and $48,000 in his bank accounts.
According to Belarus’ main human rights group, Viasna, there are currently 1,439 political prisoners in the country.
Opposition leader Svetlana Sikhanskaya, who has also been persecuted and lives in exile in Lithuania, on Monday condemned the sentences imposed on Herasimania and Opeikin.
“Shame! … This is how the regime tries to punish opponents in exile,” Tsikhanskaya tweeted. “The regime cannot stop them, but they have confiscated their assets, including a car and an apartment in Belarus.”