A court in Belarus has sentenced the husband of the country’s opposition leader to 18 years in prison, six months after the trial began behind closed doors.
The charges against Siarhei Tsikhanouski included organising mass unrest and inciting hatred, but have been widely seen as politically motivated.
Five other opposition activists were sentenced to lengthy prison terms of 14 to 16 years.
Mr Tsikhanouski, 43, a popular video blogger and activist, had planned to challenge authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko in the August 2020 presidential election.
His wife, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, ran in his stead, drawing tens of thousands of people to rally in her support during the campaign.
Official results of the vote handed Mr Lukashenko a landslide victory and a sixth term in office, but were denounced by opposition and the West as a sham.
The results triggered a months-long wave of unprecedented mass protests, the largest of which saw 200,000 people taking to the streets of the Belarusian capital of Minsk.
Mr Lukashenko’s government unleashed a violent crackdown on the demonstrators, arresting more than 35,000 and beating thousands.
In recent months, pressure has mounted on Belarus’s non-governmental organisations, activists and journalists, with the authorities regularly conducting mass raids and detentions of those they suspect of supporting the anti-government protests.
The majority of independent media outlets and rights groups in Belarus have been shut down.
Commenting on the verdict in her husband’s case, Ms Tsikhanouskaya told the Associated Press: “The dictator publicly retaliates against his strongest opponents, they’re being repressed for their desire to live in a free Belarus.
“We will not stop and will continue the fight with the dictatorship in the centre of Europe.”
Mr Tsikhanouski has already spent 20 months behind bars. His trial was shrouded in secrecy, with court hearings held behind closed doors and lawyers bound by non-disclosure agreements.
State media showed a tired-looking Mr Tsikhanouski being led into the closed hearing, along with other defendants who included Mikola Statkevich, who ran against Mr Lukashenko in 2010 and was sentenced to six years in prison after demonstrations broke out following that election.
Mr Statkevich was arrested again in May 2020 and on Tuesday was sentenced to 14 years.
Another blogger who stood trial alongside Mr Tsikhanouski, 29-year-old Ihar Losik, was handed a 15-year sentence. He was holding a hunger strike in jail to protest against his prosecution.