Convicted might-have been presidential candidate transferred to Navapolatsk penal colony

On Monday morning, defence lawyers came to the pre-trial detention centre Nr 1 in Minsk to see their client Viktar Babaryka. As far back as July 9, the convicted politician was there.

Viktar Babaryka in court. Minsk, 6 July 2021. Photo: Reuters

However, they were informed that Babaryka was placed in penal colony Nr 1 in the town of Navapolatsk (Vitsebsk region). Anton Valavik, Alyaksandr Kabanau, Dzyanis Urad and two dozen people recognised as political prisoners are being held there.

Little is known about the current confinement conditions in the colony. As reported in January, inmate Andrey Dubik (he was sentenced to 11.5 years for having 0.044 grams of marijuana) committed suicide there. Before the tragedy, his father was told that the son had been put in solitary confinement. In February, it became known that 26-year-old Alyaksei Zhuk died of cardiac arrest in Navapolatsk penal colony.

On July 6, the Supreme Court of Belarus passed a verdict in the case of Viktar Babaryka, a former head of Belgazprombank and might-have-been election opponent of Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

In February 2021, Viktar Babaryka started to be tried in Minsk. As the case was considered by the Supreme Court, there will be no opportunity to appeal against the verdict. Babaryka’s lawyers applied for taking the trial to a lower court, but in vain. He was accused of creating and managing an organised criminal group consisting of his deputies; tax evasion; bribetaking. The investigation believes that Belgazprombank top managers were illegally paid from 2004 to 2020. According to the prosecutor, the size of fees ranged from $10-15 thousand to $300 thousand or more.

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Viktar Babaryka, who has already spent more than 12 months behind bars, has been found guilty of receiving a grand bribe (Article 430-3 of the Criminal Code) and legalisation of funds obtained by crime (Article 235-2).

Last week, when delivering his last plea, Viktar Babaryka failed to plead guilty to the crimes he was accused of.

“Although my confessing to crimes I never commited would have been more right in terms of presumable benefits, I cannot confess to crimes that I did not commit,” the politician said in court.

During his being head of Belgazprombank, ‘even a hint of the opportunity to commit unlawful acts was disallowed, to say nothing of any wrongdoing or coercion,’ Babaryka stressed.

Public prosecutor Syarhei Hirhel demanded Babaryka get the maximum possible term of imprisonment (15 years). Last week, judge Ihar Lyubavitski partially took heed of the prosecutor’s demand and sentenced the defendant to 14 years of imprisonment in a medium-security penal colony.

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Viktar Babaryka was standing a good chance to win the 2020 presidential election in Belarus, but he was taken into custody and barred from running for presidency. The former head of Belgazprombank and his son Eduard (head of his campaign office) have been behind bars for one year.

On 18 June 2020, the two Babarykas were arrested, interrogated at the Financial Investigations Department (defence lawyers were not allowed to be present) and taken to the notorious KGB prison Amerykanka; their house and flat were searched. Then, according to official reports, they were not involved in the Belgazprombank case which was in full swing then. At first, the committee said that Viktar Babaryka had ‘no procedural status in the investigation of the criminal case’.

A week earlier, on June 11, officers of the Financial Investigations Department (part of the State Control Committee) came to the head office of Belgazprombank. The department opened a criminal case under Art. 243-2 (large-scale tax evasion) and Art. 235-2 (legalisation of particularly large sums of money obtained through crime). Over a dozen top managers and bank employees were arrested as part of the case. Then Belarusian authorities established the provisional administration in order to ‘protect the interests of depositors and creditors’ of the bank. Viktar Babaryka called placing the bank under the state’s control ‘forcible takeover’.

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Alyaksandr Lukashenka hinted at initiating a case against Babaryka two weeks before his detention by publicly instructing his services to ‘paw through the big-bellied bourgeoisie”, but a bit later he stated he was not going to turn Babaryka into ‘a prisoner of conscience’. In turn, the former banker submitted an appeal to the CEC, pointing out the facts of Lukashenka’s alleged violations of the law, but election officials refused to issue a warning to the Belarusian leader.

As reported earlier, presidential hopeful Viktar Babaryka had been Chairman of Belgazprombank Board since 2000. On 12 May 2020, when he revealed his presidential ambitions, he voluntarily resigned from his senior management job. Belgazprombank’s main shareholders from the Russian side are Gazprom and Gazprombank; in this view, Babaryka is often faulted for allegedly being linked to Moscow. At the same time, the prospective candidate has repeatedly put an emphasis on his being Belarusian. In his opinion, it is impossible to build an independent state when there is no solid foundation, i.e. culture and national identity.

Although over 430,000 Belarusians put their signatures for his nomination, the Belarusian Central Election Commission (CEC) refused to register Babaryka as a presidential candidate.

The Belarusian human rights community recognised Viktar and Eduard Babaryka as political prisoners.

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