Aspiring Belarusian Presidential Candidate Gets 14 Years in Prison, U.S. Calls It a 'Sham'

The main rival to Belarus's authoritarian president was sentenced to 14 years in prison, the Associated Press reported.

The U.S. Embassy called the verdict a "cruel sham" and said it showed that President Alexander Lukashenko's "regime will stop at nothing to keep power."

Viktor Babariko, the head of a commercial bank owned by Russian natural gas company Gazprom, hoped to challenged Lukashenko last year but was arrested before the election and was prohibited from registering as a candidate.

He was convicted on Tuesday on counts of bribery and money laundering. He denied the claims, saying the charges were politically motivated.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Belarus Aspiring Presidential Candidate, 14 years prison
A woman holds a portrait of Belarrusian politician Viktor Babariko during a demonstration in solidarity with political prisoners on March 6, 2021 in Lisbon. - Belarus said it had requested the extradition of exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who was forced from the country during a crackdown on critics of leader Alexander Lukashenko. Patricia De Melo Moreira/Getty Images

At the time, he was widely perceived as Lukashenko's main rival, and his arrest drew thousands of protesters to the streets.

Babariko, who served as the chief executive of Belgazprombank, has remained jailed since his arrest.

"I can't plead guilty to the crimes I didn't commit," Babariko told the court before it issued the verdict. "I can tell you from that cage that I don't feel ashamed for my life before the people I knew."

Lukashenko's reelection to a sixth term was widely seen as rigged and triggered months of protests, the largest of which drew up to 200,000 people. Authorities responded to the demonstrations with a massive crackdown that saw more than 35,000 people arrested, thousands beaten by police and opposition leaders jailed or forced to leave the country.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who ended up as the main opposition candidate, denounced what she described as a "mad sentence to the person who decided to enter politics and became one of the leaders who woke the country up from a long sleep."

"The regime is doing all that in order to kill any thoughts even distantly resembling faith and hope," said Tsikhanouskaya, who was forced to leave Belarus under official pressure after the election. "But the hope in our hearts is something that is the most precious for Viktor and thousands of other innocent people in prisons."

Belarus Aspiring Presidential Candidate Arrested
Viktor Babariko, the former head of Russia-owned Belgazprombank, stands inside a cage in a court room in Minsk, Belarus, Tuesday, July 6, 2021. The Supreme Court in Belarus has sentenced a former contender in the 2020 presidential race to 14 years in prison on corruption charges in a case that has been widely seen as politically motivated. Viktor Babariko, the former chief executive of a Russia-owned bank, aspired to challenge Belarus' authoritarian president Alexander Lukashenko in last year's election. Associated Press/Ramil Nasibulin/BelTa Pool Photo