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Jailed Belarusian presidential contender tells court he is innocent

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By Reuters
Jailed Belarusian presidential contender tells court he is innocent
Jailed Belarusian presidential contender tells court he is innocent   -   Copyright  Thomson Reuters 2021
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MOSCOW – Former Belarusian presidential contender Viktor Babariko told a court on Monday he was innocent of what his team says were fabricated corruption charges designed to stop him challenging veteran leader Alexander Lukashenko at the ballot box.

Before his arrest last June, opinion polls suggested Babariko, 57, was Lukashenko’s main rival ahead of a presidential election which the opposition says was rigged last August to prolong Lukashenko’s long rule.

Babariko, the former head of Belgazprombank, is now being tried on corruption charges and faces up to 15 years in jail if found guilty.

“I can’t confess to crimes I didn’t commit,” Babariko told the court, according to his team. “I am not ashamed before my loved ones because no illegal actions – or even a hint of any illegal actions – took place… My children told me: we’re not ashamed of our dad.”

Footage circulated by Babariko’s team showed a small group of supporters gathered outside the courthouse ahead of what was his closing argument in the case.

Some of Babariko’s well-wishers raised their arms in court and formed the shape of a heart with their hands to show their support.

A verdict in the case is expected on July 6.

Babariko was barred from registering as a presidential candidate and detained. An ally, Maria Kolesnikova, then joined forces with two other women – Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and Veronika Tsepkalo – to lead the opposition campaign.

Kolesnikova is in jail in Belarus, Tsepkalo fled abroad, and Tsikhanouskaya, who ran against Lukashenko and has since emerged as the opposition’s most prominent figure at liberty, is trying to undermine Lukashenko from Lithuania.

Thousands were detained in a violent crackdown against protesters after the Aug. 9 election. Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, denies electoral fraud.

The crackdown prompted a flurry of Western sanctions against Minsk but Lukashenko, backed by support from neighbouring Russia, has refused to step down.