MOSCOW: The trial in absentia of Belarus opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya opened in Minsk on Tuesday, state news agency Belta reported, as strongman Alexander Lukashenko pursues critics that challenged his last election. Tikhanovskaya, who claimed victory in 2020 presidential elections, faces a litany of charges including high treason, "conspiracy to seize power" and creating and leading an extremist organisation, Belta said.

The 40-year-old activist, who was forced after the vote amid protests to leave Belarus for neighbouring EU member state Lithuania, has become the face of Belarusian democratic forces. In an interview with AFP at Davos this week, Tikhanovskaya described the trial as a "farce" and said she had not been given access to court documents ahead of the proceedings.

"I don't know how long this trial will take place, how many days, but I'm sure they will sentence me to many, many years in jail," she said Monday. Tikhanovskaya's political allies Maria Moroz, Pavel Latushko, Olga Kovalkova and Sergei Dylevsky are also being tried in absentia.

The high-profile trial comes after Belarusian authorities put in the dock a number of other critics including jailed Nobel Prize winner Ales Bialiatski. The 60-year-old Bialiatski, who founded Viasna (Spring), the country's top rights group, and two of his associates have been in detention since July 2021. The rights campaigners stand accused of smuggling a "large amount of cash" into Belarus to allegedly fund opposition activities, and face between seven and 12 years in prison.

Jailed husband sees new charges

Ahead of the start of Tikhanovskaya's trial, investigators announced new charges against her husband Sergei Tikhanovsky, who in 2021 was found guilty of organising riots and inciting social hatred. He was sentenced to 18 years in prison. "I know that whatever they come up with, it won't break him and it won't break my will to fight for the freedom of all political prisoners," Tikhanovskaya tweeted recently.

The 44-year-old charismatic YouTube blogger galvanised Belarusians when he ran for president in 2020 and coined a new insult for the strongman when he called him a "cockroach." Tikhanovsky was not allowed to run, and his wife ran in his place, claiming victory. On Monday, the Investigative Committee said the activist faced new charges of disobeying prison officials because he allegedly provoked conflicts with cellmates and flouted prison authorities' orders. Belarus witnessed a historic protest movement denouncing the controversial re-election of Lukashenko who has been in power for nearly 30 years.

Backed by Russian leader Vladimir Putin, Lukashenko unleashed a massive crackdown, throwing critics into prison or forcing them into exile. The Viasna rights group says there are more than 1,400 political prisoners in Belarus. On Monday, a Polish-Belarusian journalist went on trial in the western city of Grodno.

Andrzej Poczobut, a correspondent for top Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza and a representative of the Polish minority in Belarus, was arrested in March 2021. He faces up to 12 years in prison for criticising Lukashenko's regime, if convicted. - AFP