Belarus opposition leader denounces trial as 'farce'

Belarus opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya called her trial in absentia a "farce" and a "show" in an interview with AFP, adding that she had not been given access to court documents ahead of the start of proceedings on Tuesday.

"These trials are not trials at all. It's a show, it's farce, but it has nothing to do with justice at all," said Tikhanovskaya, who lives in exile in Lithuania after jointly leading protests against Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko in 2020.

"It's personal revenge of Lukashenko and his cronies, but not only against me, but other people who are opposing him," she told AFP at the World Economic Forum in Davos on Monday where she is the first public figure from Belarus to attend since 1992.

Faced with "about 10 charges" including high treason and conspiracy to seize power, the 40-year-old said she had contacted her court-appointed lawyer about the trial, but he never replied.

"I don't even know what my so-called lawyer will be doing tomorrow in this court, how he's going to defend me," she added.

"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."

Lukashenko's regime has prosecuted and jailed a growing number of opposition figures, journalists and activists since mass pro-democracy demonstrations in 2020 led by Tikhanovskaya and two other women.

Jailed Nobel Prize winner and human rights campaigner Ales Bialiatski, 60, went on trial in Minsk last Thursday, facing a sentence of seven to 12 years.

Tikhanovskaya said her trial could lead Belarus to issue an international arrest warrant via police organisation Interpol and prompt Lukashenko to strip her of her Belarusian nationality and passport.

The former teacher is pushing for the European Union to agree to recognise a new passport of "Free Belarus" for her and other exiles.

"I understand that this might be a unprecedented case. But we live in an unprecedented world and we have to look for new approaches," she said.

- 'Bluffing' -

Asked about joint air force drills on Monday between Russia and Belarus, which have increased fears about Lukashenko ordering his troops to attack Ukraine, Tikhanovskaya dismissed them as the latest "bluffing".

Lukashenko allowed Russian President Vladimir Putin to send troops to Belarus and use the country to stage attacks on Ukraine during February's invasion, he but has so far kept Belarusian forces out of the conflict.

"I would call it bluffing or a show for the Belarusian people," Tikhanovskaya said of the latest exercises.

"First of all to threaten them, to say 'look the Russian army is here, so sit quietly, don't oppose anything'."

She said the other purpose was "attracting the attention of Ukrainian soldiers from hotspots in eastern part (of Ukraine) to the Belarusian borders."

She added: "Ukrainians are prepared for possible land attacks. They mined a lot of kilometres of border and I think it's impossible to again invade Ukraine (from Belarus)."

Tikhanovskaya, who claimed victory in a contested 2020 presidential election, said she was the first Belarusian to attend the World Economic Forum since 1992 -- two years before Lukashenko came to power.

"It's a huge honour for us because for (almost) 30 years, Belarus was like a black hole on the map of Europe. Nobody was interested a lot with what was going on there. We were considered as an appendix of Russia. We didn't have our voice," she said.

She plans to meet Ukrainian ministers, who are attending in force to push for greater Western arms and aid, but she is still waiting for a meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky.

"They have to be cautious at the moment. They don't want to irritate Lukashenko," she said

Tikhanovskaya ran for president in 2020 when her husband, popular blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, was prevented from standing.

He was sentenced to 18 years in prison in December 2021 for organising riots and inciting social unrest among other charges.

Tikhanovskaya has not been able to speak or write to her husband, but prison authorities allow him to correspond with their children -- the only contact the family have with him, she said.