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Belarus hands lengthy prison terms to 18 participants of 2020 protests

TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — A court in Belarus on Wednesday handed lengthy prison terms to 18 participants of mass anti-government protests that shook the country in 2020, the latest step in a brutal years-long effort to stifle all and any dissent.

Multiple charges against the activists, three of whom had left the country and were tried in absentia, included assault on law enforcement officers, conspiracy to overthrow the government, committing a terrorist act and others.

According to the authorities, the protesters formed a resistance movement, attacked law enforcement officers, carried out acts of sabotage and set police stations in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, on fire. Some of them were also accused of attempting to set fire to the house of a pro-government lawmaker, Aleh Hayukevich, chairman of the Liberal Democratic Party of Belarus, by throwing Molotov cocktails at it.

Sentences handed to the demonstrators ranged from two to 25 years in prison.

Mass protests engulfed Belarus in 2020 in the wake of the disputed presidential election that handed authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko his sixth term in office. Both the Belarusian opposition and the West have denounced the vote as rigged.

The authorities responded to the demonstration with a harsh crackdown, arresting more than 35,000 people and brutally beating thousands. Dozens of rights groups and independent news outlets have been shut down.

The multi-pronged clampdown on government critics has continued to this day, with the authorities targeting opposition activists, rights advocates and journalists. Viasna, Belarus’ most prominent rights organization, has counted 1,492 political prisoners in the country.

Vadzim Prakopyeu, a key opposition figure, was sentenced Wednesday to 25 years in prison as an “organizer of a terrorist conspiracy.” Prakopyeu has left Belarus, so his sentence was announced in absentia. He has supported Belarusians who are fighting alongside Kyiv’s forces in Ukraine.

Commenting on the sentence, Prakopyeu told reporters that “Lukashenko’s criminal regime is rubberstamping criminal sentences.”

Also among those convicted was the entire family of former serviceman Uladzislau Vaytsiachovich. He stood trial alongside his wife, son and daughter-in-law and was sentenced to 21 years in prison, while his relatives were handed sentences ranging from 11 to 19 years.

Another serviceman, Ihar Chamyakin, was sentenced in absentia to 20 years in prison.

Yuras Karmanau, The Associated Press

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