Today, a Minsk city court sentenced Maria (Marfa) Rabkova and Andrey Chapiuk from leading Belarusian human rights group Viasna to 15 and 6 years’ imprisonment respectively. Eight other Belarusian activists prosecuted in connection with the same case were given sentences from 5 to 17 years’ imprisonment.
Even in context of the Belarusian government’s war on civil society, the cruelty of today’s verdict is shocking.
Following the verdict, authorities detained at least twelve of the defendants’ relatives and friends who had gathered outside the court. Police also detained prominent human rights defender Nasta Lojka, whose organization, Human Constanta, the authorities shut down last year.
The ten convicted activists were hit with trumped-up charges varying from “setting the tax office on fire” and “desecrating buildings” with graffiti to “organizing mass riots” and “running a network of criminal organizations.” Marfa alone faced charges under ten different articles of Belarus’ Criminal Code.
There is no doubt that Marfa and Andrey’s prosecution and harsh sentences are retaliation for their human rights work. Marfa, who coordinated Viasna’s volunteer network, and Andrey, one of their volunteers, have already spent almost two years behind bars throughout the investigation and trial. Marfa’s health deteriorated in jail as she was denied adequate medical care, which is not uncommon for political prisoners in Belarus.
The trial lasted for four months and was closed to the public.
The head of Viasna, Ales Bialiatski, board member Valiantsin Stefanovic, and lawyer Uladzimir Labkovich are currently awaiting trial on bogus charges of “tax evasion.” In November 2021, a court sentenced a lawyer with Viasna’s Homiel branch, Leanid Sudalenka, and local volunteer, Tatsiana Lasitsa, to three and two-and-a-half years’ imprisonment respectively.
The United Nations and other key actors, including the European Union and the United States, should increase pressure on Belarusian authorities to release political prisoners and should demonstrate support for the courageous work of Viasna and other Belarusian human rights groups.