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Belarus hands opposition activists, including Olympic swim star, prison terms in absentia

Aliaksandra Herasimenia

silver medalist Belarus’s Aliaksandra Herasimenia poses with her medal after winning the women’s 50m freestyle final during the swimming event at the London 2012 Olympic Games on August 4, 2012 in London. AFP PHOTO / MARTIN BUREAU (Photo credit should read MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/GettyImages)

AFP via Getty Images

Belarusian authorities on Monday handed lengthy prison terms to two opposition activists who had fled the country, in the first court verdict against dissidents that was announced in absentia.

Aliaksandra Herasimenia and Alexander Opeikin were each sentenced to 12 years in prison. A court in Minsk convicted the two on charges of calling for sanctions and inflicting harm on the national security of Belarus.

Herasimenia, a retired swimmer and three-time Olympic medalist, and Opeikin founded the Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation, which united hundreds of Belarusian athletes critical of President Alexander Lukahsenko’s authoritarian rule.

Belarus was shaken by major protests after the disputed August 2020 reelection of Lukashenko, which the opposition and the West denounced as a sham. Authorities responded to the demonstrations with a crackdown that saw more than 35,000 people arrested and thousands beaten by police. It was followed by an array of crippling Western sanctions.

The foundation created by Herasimenia and Opeikin contributed to canceling the biggest international tournaments in Belarus in 2021, including the European Track Championships, the Ice Hockey World Championship and World Modern Pentathlon Championships —- a humiliation for Lukahsenko, who loves sports and is a proud hockey player.

Belarusian authorities accused the two activists of undermining Belarus’ national security. The trial was held behind closed doors and without the accused present in accordance with a new law Lukahsenko signed in July, which allowed courts to try Belarusians who had fled abroad in absentia.

In addition to handing Herasimenia a prison term, the court also ruled to seize her apartment, her car and $48,000 in her bank accounts.

According to Belarus’ most prominent human rights group, Viasna, 1,439 political prisoners are currently behind bars in Belarus.

Opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who also faces prosecution and lives in exile in Lithuania, condemned the sentences handed to Herasimenia and Opeikin on Monday.

“Shameful!.. This is how the regime tries to punish its opponents in exile,” Tsikhanouskaya tweeted. “The regime can’t get to them, but their property in Belarus was seized, including a car (and) an apartment.”

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