15 Year Prison Sentence Will Not Stop Me, Exiled Belarus Opposition Leader Says

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said her children write to their father in prison.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya in the UK on March 07, 2023.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya in the UK on March 07, 2023.
Nordin Catic via Getty Images

Belarus’s exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya was sentenced to 15 years in prison this week on trumped-up charges of high treason.

Her lawyer had no contact from the defence in Belarus and Tsikhanouskaya only found out she was being put on trial via the internet.

“It was a surprise, of course. The prosecutor asked for 19 years,” she told HuffPost UK on a visit to London.

“But it didn’t change anything for me. We have to think about those who have real terms, who have already spent years and years in jail.

“I have to continue my job, raising attention of the humanitarian crisis in my country.

“I understand that I’m under threat. I have been under threat constantly since 2020, but you can’t stop doing what you do because of this sentence. It seems crazy for the democratic world, but for Belarus it’s our reality.”

Tsikhanouskaya became Belarus’s opposition candidate during the 2020 presidential election after the arrest of her husband and video blogger Sergei.

Soon after the election she fled with her children to Lithuania as president Alexander Lukashenko - who claimed to have won 80% of the vote - violently cracked down on protesters.

His victory was described as “deeply flawed and fraudulent” by western governments and Human Rights Watch reported brutal beatings and torture in the aftermath. Hundreds of opposition politicians and activists were arrested and jailed. Tsikhanouskaya is widely thought to have won.

Her husband is now serving an 18 year sentence after he was convicted in 2021 of organising riots and other charges.

Tsikhanouskaya said it was “almost impossible” to communicate directly with him but her children had been writing letters to their dad.

“My personal letters never reach the addressee,” she said. “But my children write letters to their dad and he has received them and vice versa.

“It’s very important for me because I want my husband to see how his younger daughter is starting to write letters, that my oldest son is describing what he’s doing and what he’s studying.

“We are constantly watching videos with Sergei because my daughter was five when we were separated from him and children’s memories are rather short.

“I want my children to feel the presence of their dad in their life. I need them to remember his voice, to remember how he speaks, what he looks like.

“His portraits are everywhere and my daughter is always drawing him and very often when she is in a bad mood starts crying ‘I want Daddy so much’.

“They know the truth, they know why he’s there, they know why their mother is not present constantly in their life, that I have to travel a lot.”

Tsikhanouskaya said it was important that the next generation “realise what democracy is and what their parents are fighting for”.

Lukashenko has ruled Belarus since 1994 and is a close ally of Russian president Vladimir Putin, becoming increasingly reliant on Moscow for support.

Lukashenko allowed Putin to use Belarus as a staging ground for its invasion of Ukraine.

Tsikhanouskaya urged democratic leaders not to “overlook” Belarus in the conflict and to demand the withdrawal of troops from their country.

“Lukashenko is selling our independence just to stay in power and it shouldn’t be tolerated,” she added.

The opposition leader said her strategy was to keep Lukashenko’s regime under “constant stress”.

She praised the small acts of defiance some had taken inside the country in the face of repression, adding: “People are fighting actively every day.” Tsikhanouskaya said people are scared but “our society is boiling”.

The mother-of-two urged world leaders to keep isolating Lukashenko through sanctions and to ally themselves with democratic movements.

She warned that “dictators cannot be appeased” and added: “Ukrainians are fighting not only for the land, they’re fighting between autocracy and democracy - the same as Belarusians are.

“Our fight is the same as the fight against imperialistic ambition of the empire.

“Don’t let a regime dictator fool you again. Stay on the side of the truth but be brave.”


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