EU parliament calls on Belarus to stop mistreating imprisoned political hopeful

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TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — The European Parliament demanded Thursday that authorities in Belarus stop the mistreatment of a former presidential hopeful imprisoned for standing up to the country’s authoritarian leader and immediately release him and other political prisoners.

Viktar Babaryka was handed a 14-year prison sentence in 2021 on charges that he rejected as political punishment for launching a bid to challenge Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in a 2020 presidential election.

The European Parliament said that Babaryka was hospitalized in April with traces of beatings that required surgery. Babaryka’s supporters said that the authorities haven’t released any information about his condition and barred his lawyer from visiting him.

The European Parliament urged Belarusian authorities to release Babaryka and other political prisoners. It strongly condemned the “inhumane treatment of political prisoners and their family members” in Belarus.

Belarus was shaken by major anti-government protests after Lukashenko’s disputed August 2020 reelection, which the opposition and the West denounced as rigged. Babaryka was arrested before the vote and never allowed to enter the race.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the main opposition challenger in the 2020 election who was forced to leave the country after the vote, thanked the European Parliament and welcomed its call for broader sanctions against Belarusian authorities.

“There must be no impunity for these crimes,” she said.

Belarusian authorities responded to the demonstrations with a major crackdown that saw more than 35,000 people arrested, thousands beaten by police and dozens of media outlets and nongovernmental organizations shut.

Human rights groups say Belarus now has about 1,500 political prisoners. They say such prisoners are subjected to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and torture, with some of them dying in detention.

Belarus’ leading human rights organization, Visana, reported Thursday that 35-year-old art manager Pavel Belavus received a 13-year prison sentence following a closed trial on charges of committing high treason, “creating an extremist group” and “hurting the national security.”

Belavus, who has been in custody since his November 2021 arrest, was one of the leading organizers of opposition protests in the wake of the 2020 presidential election. During his trial, he rejected the charges and vowed to continue to champion democratic freedoms.

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