Imprisoned might-have-been presidential candidate Viktar Babaryka appears before court

On Wednesday, the hearing of Viktar Babaryka’s and Belgazprombank’s case started in Maskouski district court of Minsk.

The politician flatly denies the accusations, the defence is going to seek his acquittal.

Only relatives, lawyers and state journalists were allowed to be present at the session. Many people who wanted to show support for Babaryka were barred from entering the courtroom; according to the guards, there was ‘little room’ and few vacant seats. As a result, about a hundred persons gathered near the building; they appealed to the administration, stressing that the trial was not in camera, and the people wanted to know more about it.

In the courtroom, Viktar Babaryka was put behind bars, his hands were cuffed.

Lawyer Dzmitry Layeuski made a motion for placing Babaryka under house arrest. But as the judge rejected it, the measure of restraint remained the same.

“His physical and moral condition is satisfactory, if one abstracts from the fact that the person is in a cage. Viktar keeps smiling. Surprisingly, he retains the ability to enjoy life and hope for the best. One can see his smile even through the mask. He energises all of us,” Layeuski told journalists.

In the course of today’s hearing, Babaryka’s defence stressed that the presumption of innocence had been repeatedly violated during the investigation into the ex-banker’s case. They asked to attach to the case file a number of state media reports in which Babaryka was labelled as ‘a criminal’ (including by former president Alyaksandr Lukashenka).

As the case is being considered by the Supreme Court, there will be no opportunity to appeal against the would-be verdict. Viktar Babaryka’s lawyers applied for taking the trial to a lower court, but in vain.

Defence lawyer Dzmitry Layeuski. Trial of Viktar Babaryka. Minsk, 17 February 2021. Photo: Belsat
People gathering near court building. Trial of Viktar Babaryka. Minsk, 17 February 2021. Photo: Belsat
People gathering near court building. Trial of Viktar Babaryka. Minsk, 17 February 2021. Photo: Belsat

As reported earlier, Viktar Babaryka had been Chairman of Belgazprombank Board since 2000. On May 12, 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.

People gathering near court building. Trial of Viktar Babaryka. Minsk, 17 February 2021. Photo: Belsat
Trial of Viktar Babaryka. Minsk, 17 February 2021. Photo: Belsat

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’.

On June 18, Viktar Babaryka and his son Eduard (head of his campaign office) were arrested and taken to the KGB prison; their house and flat were searched. In late June, Amnesty International recognised them prisoners of conscience ‘persecuted solely for peaceful expression of their political views’. Although hundreds of thousands of Belarusians put their signatures for his nomination, the Belarusian Central Election Commission refused to register Babaryka as a presidential candidate.

People gathering near court building. Trial of Viktar Babaryka. Minsk, 17 February 2021. Photo: Belsat

In July, the Prosecutor General’s Office redefined the nature of the charge against the incumbent president’s imprisoned competitor. According to the press service, when being Head of Belgazprombank, Viktar Babaryka received rewards totalling to 28 mln rubles from representatives of for-profit businesses; then he distributed the funds among the top managers of the bank. Thus, the prosecutors refiled the charge from Article 431-2 (active bribery) to Art. 430-3 of the Criminal Code (passive bribery).

In late November, the investigation department of the State Security Committee (KGB) said they completed a preliminary investigation into a criminal case against Belgazprombank top managers. According to the committee, Viktar Babaryka is accused of committing crimes under Art. 430-3 and Art. 235-2 of the Criminal Code (grand bribery by an organised group and large-scale laundering of illicit funds). If found guilty, he may face up to 15 years in prison.

Lukashenka accuses would-be rival of lying about premiership

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