A Belarusian court sentenced presidential candidate Viktor Babariko to 14 years in jail on what are widely seen as politically motivated embezzlement charges on July 6.
The ex-banker Babariko intended to stand for election against incumbent Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in last year’s disputed August 9 presidential election. He was so popular and on track to win the elections that Lukashenko had him arrested in June before the vote took place – one of several opposition candidates jailed ahead of the vote.
While opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who also ran and is widely believed to have won the elections, has commanded most of the headlines since, as bne IntelliNews reported, Babariko remains by far the most popular and widely trusted politician, according to a recent poll by Chatham House.
“#Belarus Viktar Babaryka, the most influential potential candidate and a former banker, has been sentenced to 14 years in jail. His only guilt is that he decided to run against #Lukashenko. He immediately gathered immense support and is still the most popular politician in Belarus,” tweeted Hanna Liubakova, a prominent opposition journalist.
The EU has cracked down on Belarus by imposing multiple rounds of sanctions that were ramped up to some of the harshest ever imposed after Lukashenko forced a commercial Ryanair flight to land in Minsk and arrested top opposition blogger Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend on May 23.
Lukashenko has responded by pushing refugees from Iraq illegally over the border into Lithuania. According to reports, there could be up to 1,500 refugees in Minsk waiting to cross the border.
Lukashenko expanded the effort this week by also pushing refugees over the border to Poland.
“Well, it didn’t take long. The Lukashenko regime has started to smuggle migrants to Poland too. The first group of 40 Afghan nationals have been detained today by Polish border guards at the Belarusian-Polish border and placed in a refugee centre,” NEXTA editor-in-chief Tadeuz Giczan tweeted on July 6.
Crime and Punishment
Lukashenko has been backed into a corner in the face of mass protests and is now entirely reliant on repression to stay in power. Babariko is his biggest threat, as he would almost certainly be swept into office if elections were held this weekend.
Babariko’s sentencing also takes him off the table as a possible compromise candidate. While Babariko is extremely popular with the voters, he has also made it clear from the start that his overriding foreign policy goal is to nurture good relations with Russia and he has no intention of following Ukraine's “turn to the West”, although he says he also wants good relations with the EU.
Babariko was the head of the local branch of Russia’s Gazprombank and knew the Russians well. He is one of the few players on the scene that would be acceptable to both the Kremlin and the population, making him doubly dangerous to Lukashenko.
The Kremlin has said nothing about the Babariko case, but must have considered him as a possible solution to the worst political crisis in Lukashenko's 26-year-long rule. The Kremlin is widely believed to be fed up with the unpredictable Lukashenko, whose antics have undermined a Kremlin policy of trying at least to put relations with the West on a more “stable” footing. By jailing Babariko Lukashenko makes it harder for the Kremlin to ease him out of power, as the Kremlin is widely believed to want to find a candidate that is friendly to Moscow that it can control, but at the same time who must be acceptable to the protesters.
The court in Belarus sentenced Babariko after finding him guilty of corruption, charges Babariko denied.
"It's an insane term for a man who decided to go into politics and became one of the leaders who woke the country from a long sleep," said Tikhanovskaya on social media.
"...The regime is doing everything to kill off any thought that even remotely resembles faith and hope. But for Viktor – as for thousands of innocent people in prison – what matters most is the hope in our hearts," she said.
The conviction of Babariko drew condemnation from the international community. The US embassy in Minsk issued a statement criticising the ruling.
"The cruel sham of the Belarus court system is on display today...showing the Lukashenka regime will stop at nothing to keep power," the embassy said on Twitter, as cited by Reuters.
After Babariko was arrested to prevent him from standing in the election his campaign manager, Maria Kolesnikova, joined forces with Tikhanovskaya, together with Veronika Tsepkalo, the wife of another popular presidential hopeful who was forced to flee the country, to campaign against Lukashenko. Kolesnikova was later snatched from the street and is now in jail facing similar sedition charges.
Babariko and Kolesnikova planned to launch a new political party called “Together” to stand in parliamentary elections. Kolesnikova released a YouTube video featuring herself and Babariko announcing the launch of the party after Babariko was already in jail.
In the meantime, all of the leading opposition figures and members of the Coordinating Council that was set up to represent the opposition in talks with the president are either in jail or living in self-imposed exile.
The UN Special Rapporteur told Belarus on July 6 to immediately free some 530 jailed people whom rights groups consider "political prisoners" as Washington's envoy hinted at the possibility of further economic sanctions against Minsk.
UN Special Rapporteur Anaïs Marin said more than 35,000 people had been arbitrarily detained over the past year and that the fear of repression has caused tens of thousands of Belarusians to flee to seek refuge abroad, reports Reuters.