Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ales Byalyatski at his trial in Minsk last month.
MINSK -- The prosecutor at a high-profile trial in Minsk has asked a court to convict and sentence Belarusian Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ales Byalyatski to 12 years in prison on smuggling and tax-evasion charges that rights defenders and Western governments call politically motivated retribution on the part of longtime authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
The prosecutor also asked the Lenin district court on February 9 to convict and sentence Byalyatski's co-defendants -- Valyantsin Stefanovich and Uladzimer Labkovich -- to 11 years and 9 years, respectively.
For a fourth defendant, Zmitser Salauyou, who is being tried in absentia, the prosecutor requested 10 years in prison.
The first three defendants have been in custody since July 2021 and potentially face up to 12 years in prison if convicted and the judge decides to enforce the maximum penalty.
The men, who went on trial in early January, are accused of bringing money into the country for "illegal activities and financing" the Vyasna (Spring) human rights group in Belarus, whose chairman is Byalyatski.
Byalyatski, who has been fighting for democracy and human rights in his beleaguered homeland his entire life, was awarded the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize along with the Ukrainian human rights organization Center for Civil Liberties and the embattled Russian rights group Memorial.
He founded the Vyasna Human Rights Center, which was originally a Minsk-based organization with the name Vyasna-96. In 1999, it was reborn as a national nongovernmental rights organization.
The NGO was outlawed by the Belarusian Supreme Court in October 2003 for its role in monitoring the country's 2001 presidential election. It has continued its work, however, as an unregistered NGO.
The main work of the organization has been defending and supporting political prisoners. The group -- and Byalyatski personally -- have regularly been harassed and persecuted by Lukashenka's government since its founding.
Belarusian authorities have moved to shut down critical and nonstate media outlets and human rights bodies in the wake of mass protests that erupted in August 2020 after a presidential election that the opposition said was rigged.
The opposition and Western governments say Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who was driven into exile, won the vote, which has not been recognized by the United States, the European Union, and several other countries.
Thousands have been detained since the vote and there have been credible reports of the torture and ill-treatment of detainees by security forces. Several people have died during the crackdown.