Lukashenko's Imprisonment of Rival Just the Latest in 27-Year Rule

The sentencing of one of President Alexander Lukashenko's main political rivals on Tuesday to 18 years in prison is just the latest in a long history of such sentences levied by the dictator who has ruled Belarus with an iron hand for 27 years.

Earlier this year, opposition activist Maria Kolesnikova was sentenced to 11 years in prison for "plotting the seizure of power by non-constitutional means" during the same election in 2020.

The Viasna Human Rights Centre of Belarus has estimated that as of December 15, some 929 persons in Belarus are political prisoners.

This type of repression is a common strategy of dictators.

"Repression is a beneficial tool for intimidating and cracking down on dissidents, but it can also be a double-edged sword for dictators."

Of the 52 regimes around the world that are recognized as dictatorships (out of a total of 195 nations, or more than 25%), most have been accused of imprisoning their political opponents.

"The dictator publicly retaliates against his strongest opponents," Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the wife of Tsikhanouski and a former presidential candidate herself, told the Associated Press. "They're being repressed for their desire to live in a free Belarus."

Despite his official conviction, many activists, allied nations and Belarusian citizens have expressed concern and outrage, claiming that this charge was levied unjustly, with many accusing the president of repression and labeling Tsikhanouski a political prisoner.

In response to this sentence, the international community has sent a wave of support, condemning President Lukashenko, threatening strict sanctions and demanding Tsikhanouski's immediate release.

"These sentences are further evidence of the regime's disregard for these international obligations, as well as for the human rights and fundamental freedoms of Belarusians," U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said in a statement. "The Belarusian people deserve better."

Ai Weiwei, who was imprisoned by the Chinese government in 2011, offers his own perspective. A renowned activist and artist before his incarceration, he told PBS in an interview that "my art shakes the foundation of their legitimacy."

"During that detention you clearly understand why a state would kidnap an individual," he said of his own political imprisonment. "You see they are really taking you seriously. So that made me be more clear how authoritarians are afraid of art, a different attitude and a different opinion... they just cannot coexist with that."

Across the world, dictatorial regimes in nations like Belarus, Venezuela, China and Myanmar (Burma) have been accused of incarcerating citizens based solely on their political activities. While some prisoners are publicly released without signs of physical abuse, the vast majority face harsh conditions, according to Amnesty International.

Ko Bo Kyi is the Joint Secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Burma. Founded in 2000 and based in Thailand, the organization advocates to secure the release of all political prisoners, assist in their reintegration into society, and ensure their right to safe participation in the democratic process.

"Prison situation is getting worse and worse," he tweeted earlier this week on the status of political prisoners in Myanmar. "Political Prisoners were beaten brutally and political prisoners are intentionally oppressed. Prisons are so crowded and prisoners cannot get enough space to sleep and cannot get proper medical treatment. Corruption is widespread."

In Belarus, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya has carried her husband's mantle. After he was arrested by authorities, she decided to run in his stead, soon becoming the main opposition candidate against Lukashenko under the slogan "a symbol of freedom."

During her campaign, Tsikhanouskaya was repeatedly threatened. After Lukashenko claimed he had won 90% of the vote, a assertion that was widely dismissed internationally, she was detained by authorities, leading her to flee Belarus for fear of further repercussions.

Despite the intimidation tactics employed by the Belarusian government, she continues to speak out against the autocratic regime, and has become a globally recognized activist. On Tuesday, she told BBC reporters that her husband's sentence was motivated by "personal revenge."

Though she said she was prepared for the verdict, the severity of the sentence appeared to set her back.

"I was ready that the sentence would be very tough," Tsikhanouskaya said, "but I am not going to sit here and count what age my husband will be released."

"My one question to myself," she added, "is what else can I do, and democratic society do, to release not only Syarhei Tsikhanouski, but all the political prisoners that are behind bars at the moment."

Belarusian Opposition Leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya
Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, wife of Syarhei Tsikhanouski, who was sentenced to 18 years in prison on Tuesday, attends a protest against the regime of Alexander Lukashenko on June 07, 2021 in Prague, Czech Republic. Tsikhanouskaya compared Lukashenko's crackdown on protesters to "Stalinism." Gabriel Kuchta/Getty Images