Belarus starts proceedings in a trial in absentia of 20 prominent political analysts

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko shake hands during a joint statement following Russian-Belarusian negotiations at the Palace of Independence in Minsk, Belarus, Friday, May 24, 2024. (Mikhail Metzel, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — Belarusian authorities on Friday started proceedings in a trial in absentia of 20 prominent political analysts who work with the world's biggest universities and think tanks, the latest in a yearslong crackdown on dissent in the country.

The analysts, all of whom have left Belarus, are accused of conspiracy to overthrow the government and taking part in an extremist group. If convicted, they face up to 12 years in prison upon returning to the country and the seizure of their assets.

In a statement, the analysts rejected the accusations against them as “absurd” and said they “don't expect a fair trial.”

Belarus was rocked by mass protests after a 2020 presidential election that gave the country's authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, his sixth term in office. Lukashenko is a close ally of Russia's President Vladimir Putin. The opposition and the West disputed Lukashenko's reelection and denounced the vote as rigged.

More than 35,000 people have been arrested, thousands brutally beaten in custody, dozens of independent news organizations and rights groups shut down, and journalists imprisoned.

About 500,000 people, including key opposition figures, have since fled the country of 9.5 million, and the authorities this year began a campaign against Belarusians abroad who call for tougher sanctions against Lukashenko’s government.

Authorities allege the analysts were advising and helping opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya as she ran against Lukashenko in 2020. She left the country shortly after the vote under pressure from the authorities, and was herself last year convicted in absentia and sentenced to 15 years in prison for conspiracy to overthrow the government and creating an extremist group.

Those on trial include Ryhor Astapenia, director of the Belarus Initiative at the Chatham House; Yauheni Kryzhanouski, associate researcher at the University of Strasbourg; Katsiaryna Shmatsina, policy analyst and PhD fellow at Virginia Tech University, and others.

“Unfortunately, we have no doubts that we will be ‘sentenced’ to prison terms requested in the indictments, like thousands of Belarusian men and women convicted in similar politically motivated cases,” read the analysts' statement, released by the Viasna center, Belarus' oldest and most prominent human rights group.

According to the Viasna, there are currently 1,403 political prisoners in Belarus, a nation of 9.5 million, including its founder Ales Bialiatski, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2022.

Tsikhanouskaya, who lives in exile in Lithuania since 2020, denounced on Friday the trial against the analysts and urged think tanks around the world to express “solidarity and support for those who preserve the free thinking in Belarus.”