Four members of a Belarusian presidential candidate's team have been sentenced to five years in a maximum-security prison for preparing "mass riots" in the wake of last year's contested election that extended strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka's rule.
A Minsk court sentenced the four individuals -- Ihar Yarmolau, Dzmitry Kanapelka, Uladzislau Karetski, and Mikalay Saseu -- on June 10 despite what the opposition and rights groups said was a dearth of evidence against them. The Belarusian rights group Vyasna considers the four political prisoners. The main evidence presented in the trial was laser pointers found in Yarmolau's car around the time of nationwide mass protests in response to Lukashenka's declaration of victory in the August 9 presidential election. The prosecution noted that each of the accused "intended to personally participate in the riots," but "could not," because law enforcement officers "took active steps to suppress the violation of public order and detain persons who took part in the riots." Yarmolau was severely beaten during his arrest, suffering broken ribs, a punctured lung, and a concussion that sent him to a hospital for a week.
Crisis In Belarus
Read our coverage as Belarusians continue to demand the resignation of Alyaksandr Lukashenka amid a brutal crackdown on protesters. The West refuses to recognize him as the country's legitimate leader after an August 9 election considered fraudulent.
All four had worked as volunteers for the presidential campaign of Viktar Babaryka, the former chairman of the board of Belgazprombank and once considered a top candidate in the election.
Ahead the election, Belarusian authorities seized control of the bank and arrested Babaryka, accusing him of masterminding the illegal transfer of millions of dollars to accounts in Latvia. Babaryka, who alongside his son is sitting in pretrial detention, could be sentenced to 15 years in prison if convicted. Babaryka's campaign ultimately backed Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, a political novice who the opposition and West say is the rightful winner of the election. Lukashenka has become an international pariah for directing a brutal postelection crackdown in which almost 30,000 people have been detained, many sentenced to lengthy prison terms, hundreds beaten, several killed, and journalists targeted. In response, the United States, European Union, and other countries have ratcheted up pressure to isolate the Lukashenka regime through a series of sanctions and other measures.