KYIV (Reuters) – A trial began in Belarus on Wednesday of a former banking executive who was jailed last year after challenging President Alexander Lukashenko in an election that sparked mass protests against the veteran leader’s rule.
Viktor Babariko, the former head of Belgazprombank, faces up to 15 years in prison on corruption charges that his team says were fabricated to prevent him from standing as a candidate in last August’s presidential election.
Wearing a face mask, his hands behind his back, the 57-year-old Babariko sat in a cage in the courtroom with other defendants, while dozens of supporters waited in freezing temperatures outside trying to get in.
More than 33,000 people have been detained in a violent crackdown on protests following the election that Lukashenko’s opponents say was blatantly rigged to prolong the rule of the president, who has been in power since 1994. Lukashenko denies electoral fraud.
The crackdown prompted new Western sanctions on Minsk but Lukashenko, backed by diplomatic and financial support from neighbouring Russia, has refused to resign.
“For many of us, this year has become a year of victory – victory over the slavery of our own soul,” Babariko said in a statement before the trial, accusing the government of “medieval repressions”.
Political analysts had seen Babariko as the biggest electoral threat to Lukashenko until his arrest last June. Following his detention, his ally Maria Kolesnikova joined forces with two other women to lead the opposition campaign.
Last week Lukashenko promised to enact political reforms but the pledge was followed this week by raids on the homes of human rights activists and journalists.
In a joint statement released on Wednesday, the United States, the European Union and Britain condemned the raids and the wider human rights situation in Belarus and urged authorities to immediately release all arbitarily detained people and to respect democracy and the rule of law.
Babariko’s trial coincided with separate proceedings against two journalists from the Poland-based television channel Belsat in Minsk. They face prison terms for reporting live from the protests.
(Editing by Gareth Jones)