DAVOS, Switzerland (AP) — A trial in absentia opened Tuesday for Belarus' top opposition leader, who denounced the proceedings as a farce and urged the West to bolster support for the country's beleaguered opposition.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya was the main challenger in the August 2020 presidential election that extended President Alexander Lukashenko's rule and was rejected by the Belarusian opposition and the West as a sham.
Tsikhanouskaya, who left the ex-Soviet nation shortly after the vote under pressure from authorities, is on trial in absentia along with four other leading opposition figures. She is facing charges of high treason, conspiracy to seize power and undermining national security, and could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted.
Tsikhanouskaya said she learned from media reports about the closed-door trial, adding that she was unable to reach her lawyer appointed by the Belarusian authorities.
"It looks like farce," Tsikhanouskaya told The Associated Press in an interview in Davos, Switzerland, where she is attending a global economic forum. “I will be sentenced to years and years. The judge will give me so many years, as he is ordered to do.”
In Washington, Secretary of State Antony Blinken denounced the trial as politically motivated and said it relied on “baseless charges.”
He said in a statement that the State Department slapped U.S. visa restrictions on 25 individuals “for their involvement in undermining democracy.” Those targeted include members of the National Assembly of Belarus who approved legislation authorizing the death penalty for people convicted of “attempted acts of terrorism,” a charge Blinken said is used to repress and intimidate the democratic opposition and civil society.
“We will not stand by as this regime continues to harass and repress peaceful protesters, the democratic opposition, journalists, unionists, activists, human rights defenders and everyday Belarusians,” the statement said.
In December 2021, Tsikhanouskaya's husband, Siarhei Tsikhanouski, was convicted and sentenced to 18 years in prison on charges of organizing mass unrest and inciting hatred, allegations which he rejected. On Monday, the authorities leveled new accusations against him.
"The lawyer visits him once a week just to check if he’s at least alive, because the conditions in prisons are awful," Tsikhanouskaya told the AP. “He was put very often in punishment cells and when you are in prison, you do not have rights at all.”
Her husband, a popular video blogger and activist, planned to challenge Lukashenko in the August 2020 vote, but was arrested in May 2020, two days after he declared his candidacy. Tsikhanouskaya, a former English teacher, ran in his place.
Tsikhanouskaya and other opposition activists rejected the official results that handed Lukashenko a sixth term in office as fraudulent. The vote triggered a months-long wave of unprecedented mass protests, the largest of which saw about 200,000 people taking to the streets of the Belarusian capital, Minsk. Lukashenko’s government responded with a violent crackdown on demonstrations, arresting more than 35,000 and brutally beating thousands.
The authorities have continued their repression, and 1,438 people in Belarus are in prisons on politically motivated charges, according to human rights groups.
Tsikhanouskaya urged the West to state a clear strategy on Belarus and support the country’s opposition.
She emphasized that backing the opposition is particularly important because Russia used Belarus’ territory to invade Ukraine last Feb. 24 and stations its troops and weapons on Belarusian territory. Tsikhanouskaya noted that opposition activists in Belarus help gather information about Russian troop movements, adding that “we deliver this information to Ukraine.”
“I don’t want the world to overlook Belarus, to explain once again why Belarus is important, that without a safe, free, democratic Belarus, there will not be stable peace in the region," Tsikhanouskaya said.
Yuras Karmanau contributed to this report from Tallinn, Estonia.