Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Belarus’ exiled main opposition leader, has been sentenced to 15 years in prison in absentia for treason and conspiracy to seize power.
The 40-year-old ran against authoritarian president Alexander Lukashenko in 2020 and is believed to have won.
However, she was forced to flee after Lukashenko was declared the winner by a large margin.
Tsikhanouskaya had sought election after her husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky, who was the previous candidate, was arrested two days following announcing his intention to run against Lukashenko, who has allegedly won every election since 1994.
During the campaign, Tsikhanouskaya said she had been threatened with arrest and having her children taken away if she continued to seek office.
In August 2020, Lukashenko was declared the winner of the election, which was widely regarded as rigged. Tsikhanouskaya said she did not believe the results and filed a complaint with the Central Election Commission but was detained for seven hours as a result.
After being released, she chose to go into exile in Lithuania out of fears of safety for her children.
Some of Belarus’ largest protests broke out to oppose Lukashenko’s re-election but were met with a brutal police crackdown.
Days later she fled, state media released a video of Tsikhanouskaya, where she conceded defeat and called for an end to the protests.
However, many have said the video was coerced.
Lukashenko has since jailed all of the country’s prominent opposition figures, including Tsikhanouskaya’s husband, who was sentenced to 18 years in prison.
In July 2021, Viktor Babariko, another presidential hopeful, was sentenced to 14 years in prison for corruption after being arrested before election day.
In September, Maria Kalesnikava, a prominent opposition leader who led the demonstrations along with Tikhanovskaya, was sentenced to 11 years in prison for extremism and conspiring to “seize state power in an unconstitutional way” that threatens national security.
Tsikhanouskaya has rejected the court’s legitimacy.
“Today I don’t think about my own sentence. I think about thousands of innocents, detained and sentenced to real prison terms. I won’t stop until each of them is released,” she said on social media.