Belarus’ jailing of a Nobel-prize winning activist was a “fake” verdict in a “sham trial”, the EU’s top diplomat has said, amid threats of further sanctions.
The EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell spoke out a few hours after a Minsk court sentenced a hand-cuffed and dejected-looking Ales Bialiatski to most of the rest of his life in prison on Friday (4 March).
The 60-year old won a Nobel prize in absentia last year for his work as chairman of the Viasna Human Rights Centre.
But this was not enough to shield him from a 10-year sentence on charges of financing protests and smuggling money into Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko’s domain.
Belarus also jailed three other human-rights defenders for between seven and nine years the same day “on fake and politically-motivated charges”, Borrell noted.
“The European Union condemns in the strongest possible terms their sham trials that are yet another appalling example of the Lukashenko regime trying to silence those who stand up in defence of human rights,” he added.
Lukashenko is holding “more than 1,450” political prisoners in his dungeons, according to Borrell’s reckoning.
Reports of conditions inside involve multiple cases of torture and sexual violence.
“The EU stands ready to react to repression and human rights abuses by the regime against its population,” he added, in a threat of further sanctions.
Friday’s verdict was a “farce”, German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock echoed.
“The Minsk regime is fighting civil society with violence and imprisonment. This is as much a daily disgrace as Lukashenko’s support for [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s war [in Ukraine],” she added.
The EU blacklisted Lukashenko and 194 other individuals after his crackdown on protests following rigged elections in 2021.
It blacklisted 22 more and imposed trade and financial sanctions last year over Lukashenko’s support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
But some of Lukashenko’s relatives, such as his daughter-in-law Anna Lukashenko are still free to travel and live lavish lifestyles in the EU.
And the EU spared Belarus in its latest rounds of Russia sanctions, despite calls by the Belarusian government-in-exile in Lithuania to do more.
Bialiatski began his activism with anti-Soviet protests in the 1980s.
He already spent four years in prison between 2011 and 2014 on tax-evasion charges.
“I think there is an opportunity [for political change] after my release and I think I have to use the momentum,” he told EUobserver in an interview at the time.
Exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said on Friday: “We must do everything to fight against this shameful injustice and free them [Bialiatski and the other three people jailed this week]”.
“The case, the verdict against him [Bialiatski], is a tragedy for him personally,” Berit Reiss-Andersen, leader of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, told the Reuters news agency.
“It also shows that the regime in Belarus does not tolerate freedom of expression and opposition,” she said.