KYIV – A trial began Wednesday in Belarus for a bank executive who had aspired to challenge authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko in last year's election but was blocked from running due to criminal charges that he rejected as political.
Viktor Babariko, the former head of Russia-owned Belgazprombank, has been jailed since June on corruption and money-laundering charges. He has dismissed the accusations, saying they were intended to prevent him from challenging Lukashenko.
The 57-year-old Babariko could face up to 15 years in prison if convicted at the trial in the Supreme Court of Belarus, the country's highest.
In a statement released before the trial began, Babariko denounced what he called “medieval repressions” against the opposition in Belarus but added that “for many of us, the past year was a year of victory over the slavery of our own souls.”
Official results from the Aug. 9 presidential election gave Lukashenko a sixth term by a landslide, triggering massive protests. The main opposition candidate, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, and her supporters have dismissed the result as rigged. Some poll workers also have described seeing the vote manipulated.
Authorities have responded with a sweeping crackdown on the demonstrations, the biggest of which attracted up to 200,000 people. According to human rights advocates, more than 30,000 people have been detained since the protests began, and thousands were brutally beaten.
The United States and the European Union have responded to the election and the crackdown by introducing sanctions against Belarusian officials.
In a joint statement, the embassies of the United States, the U.K. and Switzerland, as well as the European Union delegation, strongly condemned police raids on Tuesday that targeted more than 30 journalists and human rights activists in Belarus.
“The Belarusian authorities continue their increased harassment of the country’s civil society,” they said Wednesday. “This needs to stop."
The statement urged authorities “to release all the arbitrarily detained persons immediately and unconditionally.”
Before his arrest, Babariko was widely perceived as the main challenger to Lukashenko. The president sought to cast Babariko's election bid as part of efforts by Belarus' main sponsor, Russia, to exert pressure on his government and try to weaken the country's independence.
“Babariko was seen as loyal to Moscow. He could offer a program of reforms and ride a wave of protests sentiments among the broad public and the elites,” said Valery Karbalevich, an independent Minsk-based political analyst. “That was deadly dangerous for Lukashenko.”
But facing Western sanctions over the vote-rigging and the crackdown on protests, Lukashenko has come to rely increasingly on Moscow's subsidies and political support.