A Belarussian court sentenced Nobel Peace Prize winner Ales Bialiatski to ten years in prison.
He was convicted of smuggling and financing “grossly violating public order,” according to the Viasna human rights group.
Supporters of Mr Bialiatski, 60, claim that Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s authoritarian regime is attempting to silence him.
Mr Bialiatski was one of three Nobel Peace Prize laureates in 2022.
Following massive street protests over widely disputed elections the previous year, he was arrested in 2021 and accused of smuggling cash into Belarus to fund opposition activity.
During the demonstrations, which began in 2020, demonstrators were met with police brutality, and Lukashenko critics were regularly arrested and jailed.
Mr. Bialiatski appeared in court with two other campaigners, Valentin Stefanovich and Vladimir Labkovich.
According to Viasna, the group Mr Bialiatski founded in 1996, Mr Stefanovich was sentenced to nine years in prison, while Mr Labkovich received seven years.
All three had previously pleaded not guilty.
Who is Ales Bialiatski, the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize?
Belarus’s exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya said the sentencing was “simply appalling”.
“We must do everything we can to fight this heinous injustice and free them,” she said.
Germany’s Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock described the charges as a “farce”, saying the trio were being punished “simply for their years-long fight for the rights, dignity and freedom of the people of Belarus”.
According to Viasna, there are currently 1,458 political prisoners in Belarus; authorities claim there are none.
Berit Reiss-Anderson, head of the Norwegian Nobel committee, said the Belarusian government had “for years tried to silence him” in awarding Mr Bialiatski the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize.
“He has been harassed, arrested, and jailed, and he has been denied employment,” she stated.
Mr Bialiatski is a veteran of the Belarusian human rights movement, having founded Viasna in 1996 in response to Mr Lukashenko’s brutal crackdown on street protests that year. Mr Lukashenko has been president of Belarus since the office was established in 1994.
He was sentenced to three years in prison in 2011 after being convicted of tax evasion, which he denied.
Mr. Lukashenko has been dubbed “Europe’s last dictator” by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
He has hosted Russian forces and allowed them to use Belarus as a staging ground for its invasion of Ukraine, as he has become increasingly reliant on Moscow for economic, political, and military support.
He has been sanctioned both for his role in the invasion and for domestic political oppression.
Last month, he told the BBC that he was prepared to “wage war” alongside Russia “if someone – even a single soldier – enters our territory from there [Ukraine]”.