March 3 (UPI) — Nobel Peace Prize winner and human rights activist Ales Bialiatski was sentenced to 10 years in prison by a court in Belarus on Friday after being found guilty of smuggling charges.
The Viasna Human Rights Center, which he founded, announced that Bialiatski was sentenced along with three other activists for allegedly smuggling almost $300,000 into Belarus to fund the group’s activities.
Bialiatski’s deputy Valiantsin Stefanovic, was sentenced to nine years in prison, while Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections campaign coordinator Uladzimir Labkovich received a seven-year sentence.
A third defendant, Zmitser Salauyou who was tried in absentia having fled the country, was sentenced to eight years.
Viasna noted the sentencing can still be appealed.
The jailing of Bialiatski and the three other activists is being widely seen as part of a crackdown on opposition voices by the country’s authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko who has been tightening his grip on power following months of anti-government protests in 2020.
Bialiatski has been in detention since 2020 after large-scale protests erupted challenging the re-election of Lukashenko in August of that year. He was previously jailed from 2011 to 2014.
The 60-year-old former schoolteacher was arrested as part of a systemic effort to silence all criticism of the regime in the summer of 2020 that saw the offices and homes of staff of more than 60 human rights organizations raided by authorities, 46 of which were subsequently shut down.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskay, the exiled leader of Democratic Belarus who claims Lukashenko overturned the result of the 2020 presidential election which she won, said she was appalled by the jailing of Bialiatski and the others.
“The shameful sentence against Ales, Valiantsin and Uladzimir is the regime’s revenge for their steadfastness. Revenge for solidarity. Revenge for helping others. Ten years for an opposition leader clearly shows what Lukashenko’s regime is,” Tsikhanouskay said in a Twitter post.
“Ales has dedicated his life to fighting against tyranny. He is a true hero of Belarus and will be honored long after the dictator is forgotten.”
Bialiatski was one of three winners of the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize for his determined effort to promote peaceful development and change in his country despite the government’s efforts to silence him.
“Ales Bialiatski was one of the initiators of the democracy movement that emerged in Belarus in the mid-1980s,” the Nobel committee said in a statement read out in the absence of Bialaiski who was unable to attend the awards ceremony because he was being held in detention in Belarus.
“He has devoted his life to promoting democracy and peaceful development in his home country. Among other things, he founded the organization Viasna in 1996 in response to the controversial constitutional amendments that gave the president dictatorial powers and that triggered widespread demonstrations.”