Minsk, Belarus, Feb 17 (AFP/APP): A leading Belarusian opposition figure went on trial Wednesday in the former Soviet nation that was gripped by months of anti-government protests last year.
Viktor Babaryko had planned to run against Alexander Lukashenko but was arrested in June ahead of elections and charged with bribery and money laundering. Lukashenko has ruled Belarus with an iron fist for two decades and claimed a landslide victory in the August polls, sparking huge protests that swept the country for months.
Babaryko was accused by KGB security services of receiving bribes and “laundering funds obtained by criminal means” when he was head of Belgazprombank, the Belarusian branch of a bank belonging to Russian energy giant Gazprom.
His trial opened Wednesday at a courthouse in Minsk, which was cordoned off by police and closed to independent journalists. “Darkness, malice and lies cannot last forever. The dawn will come and light up the vastness of our Belarus,” 57-year-old Babaryko said through his lawyers on the eve of the trial.
The charges against him were seen as part of a broader authoritarian sweep to clear Lukashenko’s path to a sixth term, and several other Belgazprombank senior executives are also being prosecuted. All defendants admitted their guilt except for Babaryko, the KGB said.
The trial comes a day after police raided the homes and offices of dozens of journalists, rights defenders and trade union members. The Council of Europe, an international rights body, and Amnesty International decried the searches, which investigators said were part of a probe into the financing of opposition protests.
Babaryko was among the several opposition figures who were arrested or fled the country ahead of the last year’s election. Lukashenko’s main opponent in the elections was Svetlana Tikhanovskaya — the wife of another imprisoned opposition figure — who took her husband’s place in the polls and quickly gained popularity.
Tikhanovskaya was forced into exile in EU member Lithuania several days after the election as large-scale protests against Lukashenko’s rule engulfed the ex-Soviet country. Several Western leaders have refused to recognise the Belarus election results while the European Union has imposed sanctions on Lukashenko and his allies. Lukashenko weathered the mass protests and earlier this month rolled back on promises to dilute presidential powers and reform the constitution this year.
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