Lukashenko rival in court as Belarus sees new crackdown

·3-min read

A leading opposition figure went on trial on Wednesday in Belarus, where authorities are pursuing criminal cases against activists and journalists following months of anti-government protests last year.

The demonstrations swept the former Soviet country after strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko claimed a landslide victory in August polls that the opposition and many Western countries said were a fraud.

Former banker and leading opposition member Viktor Babaryko was arrested in June ahead of the election, after he announced he would run against Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus with an iron fist for two decades.

He was accused by the KGB security services of receiving bribes and "laundering funds obtained by criminal means" when he was head of Belgazprombank, the Belarusian branch of a bank belonging to Russian energy giant Gazprom.

The hearing opened in the capital Minsk at a courthouse cordoned off by police and closed to independent journalists.

Babaryko, who is being held in pre-trial custody, appeared in court behind white bars in a cage for defendants. He was photographed joining his hands to form the heart symbol popular at protests last year.

"Darkness, malice and lies cannot last forever. The dawn will come and light up the vastness of our Belarus," 57-year-old Babaryko said through his lawyers on the eve of the trial.

The charges against him were seen as part of a broader authoritarian sweep to clear Lukashenko's path to a sixth term, and several other Belgazprombank senior executives are also being prosecuted.

- Journalists face jail time -

All defendants admitted their guilt except for Babaryko, the KGB said. He will not be permitted to appeal the ruling.

The start of the trial, which will resume Thursday, came a day after police said they raided around 90 homes and offices of journalists, rights activists and trade union members.

The Council of Europe, an international rights body, and Amnesty International hit out at the searches, which investigators said were part of a probe into the financing of opposition protests.

In a separate trial Wednesday, prosecutors requested that two journalists be jailed for two years on charges of organising protests. A verdict in the case is expected Thursday.

Katerina Bakhvalova, 27, and Daria Chultsova, 23, were detained in November while covering a rally that drew people angry at the killing of an anti-government protester.

Independent media has been under increasing pressure in the ex-Soviet country, with police detaining journalists 477 times last year.

- EU sanctions -

Babaryko was among the several opposition figures who were arrested or fled the country ahead of the last year's election.

Lukashenko's main opponent in the elections was Svetlana Tikhanovskaya -- the wife of another imprisoned opposition figure -- who took her husband's place in the polls and quickly gained popularity.

Tikhanovskaya was forced into exile in EU member Lithuania several days after the election, as large-scale protests against Lukashenko's rule engulfed the country of some 10 million.

Several Western leaders have refused to recognise the election results, while the European Union has imposed sanctions on Lukashenko and his allies.

Lukashenko weathered the mass protests and earlier this month rolled back promises to dilute presidential powers and reform the constitution this year.