A court in Belarus has sentenced the husband of the leader of the country's pro-democracy movement, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, to 18 years in prison, convicting him in a closed-door trial widely condemned as revenge for challenging authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko.
Sergey Tikhanovsky was jailed on Tuesday along with five other opposition activists who all received lengthy sentences -- from 14 to 16 years in maximum security prisons -- after they were found guilty of inciting mass unrest and social hatred.
Tikhanovsky, 43, was a popular video blogger who built a following by travelling the country, pointing out problems and criticizing Lukashenko's rule. Last year, he sought to run against Lukashenko in a presidential election, but authorities blocked Tikhanovsky from the ballot and arrested him, prompting Svetlana to take his place.
She then found herself at the head of the huge protest movement that erupted against Lukashenko following the election in August and briefly seemed close to toppling him. Tikhanovskaya was forced into exile in neighboring Lithuania, and her husband remained behind bars as Lukashenko regained his grip through intense repression.
Tikhanovskaya on Tuesday said her husband's sentence was Lukashenko's "personal revenge."
"The dictator publicly takes revenge on his strongest opponents," she wrote on Twitter. "While hiding the political prisoners in closed trials, he hopes to continue repressions in silence. But the whole world watches. We won't stop."
The verdicts come amid a campaign of relentless repression in Belarus over the past year that has seen many thousands detained and hundreds made political prisoners.
The court also sentenced Artsyom Sakau, who helped on Tikhanovsky's presidential campaign, and Dmitry Popov, his social media manager, to 16 years in prison. Mikola Statkevich, an opposition activist, received 14 years, and Ihar Losik, a journalist with the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, was jailed for 15 years.
Prove to me you're not a coward. I'm waiting for your invitation.
The verdicts were slammed by European countries and the United States, which demanded Lukashenko's government immediately release them and other political prisoners.
U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said in a statement the verdicts were "politically motivated" and further evidence of the Lukashenko regime's disregard "for the human rights and fundamental freedoms of Belarusians."
Video released from the court room on Tuesday showed the men in a cage, smiling. As the verdict was read out, Tikhanovsky turned his back on the judge.
Losik's wife later published a video address castigating the court and challenging Lukashenko to meet with her.
She said her husband already had endured two hunger strikes and had slit his wrists in an attempt to die by suicide. She accused a prison psychologist of encouraging him to make another attempt.
"Let's meet, and I will tell you what our family has gone through thanks to your underlings," she said, addressing Lukashenko. "And you try to explain to me why we have gone through, and continue to go through, all these torments."
"I don't intend to run and hide abroad," she added. "Prove to me you're not a coward. I'm waiting for your invitation."