A Belarusian court on Dec. 14 sentenced opposition leader and popular blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky to 18 years in a high-security prison. Five other suspects in the Tikhanovsky case were jailed for 14 to 16 years.
The verdict is a new low in what has been described as the biggest wave of repressions since the Joseph Stalin era in post-Soviet countries. Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko has arrested and jailed thousands of protesters since the rigged presidential election of 2020 led to the largest-ever protests in the country’s history.
Tikhanovsky and the other suspects were convicted on charges of rioting, hate speech, thwarting the work of election commissions and breach of the peace. They have not been involved in any rioting or violence and were essentially arrested and prosecuted for peaceful opposition activities.
Tikhanovsky was one of the three strongest opposition candidates in the initial stage of Belarus’ 2020 presidential election, along with Viktor Babariko and Valery Tsepkalo.
Independent opinion polls are banned in Belarus but indirect evidence shows that Lukashenko’s competitors could have beaten him in a fair election. According to the average percentage based on five non-representative Internet polls taken by five media outlets in May 2020, Babariko could get 49 percent, Tikhanovsky’s wife Svetlana Tikhanovskaya could receive 22.3 percent, 11.3 percent would vote for Tsepkalo, and only 3.4 percent would back Lukashenko.
The Belarusian authorities refused to register any of the three strongest candidates and arrested Tikhanovsky and Babariko in May-June 2020. As a result, the opposition campaigns united and fielded Tikhanovsky’s wife Svetlana, who had been registered as the main opposition candidate.
According to the official election results, Lukashenko and Tikhanovskaya received 80 percent and 10 percent of the vote, respectively. Documentary and mathematical evidence shows that the election was heavily rigged, and Tikhanovskaya could have won the vote in reality.
As a result, hundreds of thousands took to the streets in Belarus in 2020 and demanded a new fair election. Thousands were arrested, and many were beaten and tortured. At least seven demonstrators have been killed in the protests.
Tikhanovskaya, Tsepkalo, as well as his wife and campaign chief Veronika Tsepkalo, have emigrated from Belarus.
Meanwhile, Babariko was sentenced to 14 years in jail in July on tax evasion and money laundering charges, and his campaign chief Maria Kolesnikova was sentenced to 11 years in jail in September on charges of “undermining national security.”
Belarus has 920 political prisoners — the highest-ever number in the history of Belarus, according to human rights watchdog Vyasna.