MINSK: File photo shows Belarus' opposition figures Mikola Statkevich (C) and Vladimir Neklyayev (R) meet with people in central Minsk. A court in Belarus yesterday sentenced opposition leader Sergei Tikhanovsky to 18 years in prison. - AFP

MOSCOW: A court in Belarus yesterday sentenced opposition leader Sergei Tikhanovsky to 18 years in prison after he galvanised an unprecedented protest movement against strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko last year, state media said. Following a months-long trial behind closed doors at a detention centre in the southeastern city of Gomel, the court found Tikhanovsky, 43, guilty of organising riots and inciting social hatred, among other charges, state newspaper Sovetskaya Belarus reported.

Tikhanovsky's wife, self-exiled Belarus democracy icon Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, denounced the verdict. "The dictator publicly takes revenge on his strongest opponents," she wrote on Twitter after her husband was handed the sentence. "While hiding the political prisoners in closed trials, he hopes to continue repressions in silence. But the whole world watches. We won't stop," she added in English.

One of Tikhanovsky's five co-defendants in the high-profile case, veteran politician Mikola Statkevich, 65, was sentenced to 14 years. Statkevich challenged Lukashenko in elections in 2010 but was sentenced to six years in prison. Released early in 2015, he was barred from contesting the 2020 poll. Both Tikhanovsky and Statkevich have been in custody since May 2020.

Little was known about the trial which began in June.

In power since 1994, Lukashenko has been cracking down on opponents since unprecedented protests erupted after the 2020 election, deemed unfair by the West. Lukashenko's government has jailed or forced to flee all of his prominent opponents. Tikhanovsky planned to run against Lukashenko in the August 2020 presidential elections in Belarus but was arrested and jailed before the vote.

His wife Svetlana-a political novice at the time of his arrest-took his place in the polls and was widely believed to have won the elections. She vowed to fight on earlier yesterday. "I will keep defending the person I love and who became the leader of millions of Belarusians," Tikhanovskaya said in a video address posted to Twitter, sitting in front of a wall featuring childrens' drawings. "I will try to do something very difficult-maybe impossible-to bring closer the moment when we will see each other in a new Belarus."

She added that any verdict would be "illegal and not something with which one can make peace." Another high-profile co-defendant in the case, 29-year-old Igor Losik, was sentenced to 15 years in prison yesterday. He had been detained in the summer of 2020 and accused of using his popular channel on messenger app Telegram to incite riots. The three other co-defendants in the case are blogger Vladimir Tsyganovich as well as two activists linked to Tikhanovsky: Artyom Sakov and Dmitry Popov. Tsyganovich received 15 years in prison, while Sakov and Popov were handed 16 years apiece.

'Stop the cockroach'

A charismatic activist, Tikhanovsky, coined a new insult for Lukashenko when he called him a "cockroach" and his campaign slogan was "Stop the cockroach." His supporters waved slippers-often used to kill the insects-at protests. The activist was however detained on charges of violating public order soon after announcing his presidential bid.

His wife Tikhanovskaya, a stay-at-home mother of two children at the time of her husband's arrest, was forced to flee ex-Soviet Belarus to neighbouring European Union member Lithuania after Lukashenko launched a crackdown in the wake of the vote, deemed unfair by the West. She quickly won recognition from Western governments as Belarus's top opposition leader and has been lobbying for change in the country ever since.

In September, a Belarusian court sentenced opposition leader Maria Kolesnikova to 11 years in prison for violating national security and conspiring to seize power. The former flute player, who refused to go into exile, was part of a female trio of protest leaders along with Tikhanovskaya and Veronika Tsepkalo, who fled to Greece. In July, another opposition leader and former banker, Viktor Babaryko, was sentenced to 14 years in prison on fraud charges. - AFP