Belarus has jailed an opposition leader for 14 years, and threatened to stop western goods entering the country while allowing migrants to move in the opposite direction, drawing fresh condemnation from the European Union and United States.
Former banking executive Viktor Babariko was convicted on corruption charges on Tuesday that allies say were invented to stop him running in last August’s presidential election, when he was expected to pose a strong challenge to veteran autocrat Alexander Lukashenko, who has run the country since 1994.
The arrest of the ex-banker and two other opposition contenders prompted Svetlana Tikhanovskaya – the wife of one of the detained candidates – to run in the election with help from Maria Kolesnikova, Mr Babariko’s campaign manager.
Ms Tikhanovskaya claims to have won the election and now leads Belarus’s pro-democracy movement from exile in neighbouring Lithuania, while Ms Kolesnikova has languished in a Minsk jail since her arrest last September during a brutal police crackdown on huge anti-Lukashenko protests.
“This is an insane [prison] term for a man who decided to go into politics and became one of the leaders who woke the country from a long sleep,” Ms Tikhanovskaya wrote on social media.
“But Viktor said that the country needs a good manager, and I know that a time will come when such a manager will help us rebuild the country,” she added, while urging Belarusians not to give up hope: “It is for the sake of this hope that he did not make a deal with the regime.”
EU spokesman Peter Stano said the bloc “demands the immediate and unconditional release of Mr Babariko as well as of all political prisoners, detained journalists and people who are behind bars for exercising their fundamental rights. The regime must halt repression and injustice and hold perpetrators to account.
“Today, Belarus has over 530 political prisoners, hundreds of documented instances of torture, and continued repression against all segments of society to silence all dissent,” he added.
The US embassy in Minsk described the trial as a “cruel sham” that showed “the Lukashenko regime will stop at nothing to keep power”.
Mr Lukashenko has drawn closer to Russia in response to the threat to his rule, while the EU and US have imposed sanctions on his regime for its crackdown on critics and for diverting a Ryanair flight to Minsk airport in May so that opposition activist Roman Protasevich could be taken off the plane and arrested.
Lithuania blames Minsk for a sudden surge in migrants crossing its eastern border, and Mr Lukashenko reiterated on Tuesday that Belarus would now only combat illegal migration “as much as is essential and useful for our country”.
“And if you escalate the situation against Belarus with new stages of sanctions, you will go around us via the North Pole and across the Mediterranean Sea [with your goods]” he added.
“First: not a step inside the Belarusian market; second: not a step through Belarus either. Exactly the same should be done with the Germans. Let [them] supply their products to China and Russia through Finland. Or through Ukraine. ”