Year passes since arrest of might-have-been presidential candidate Viktar Babaryka, his son Eduard

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.

Viktar Babaryka. Photo: Belsat

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’.

By that time, wannabe presidential candidate Syarhei Tsikhanouski, politicians Mikalai Statkevich and Pavel Sevyarynets had been arrested.

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’.

Lukashenka’s protege Yermakova heads Belgazprombank. Ex-chairman Babaryka still in jail

Many Belarusians were outraged by the arrest of Viktar and Eduard. In the evening of June 18, a mass picket kicked off in the centre of Minsk; its participants formed a solidarity chain from the Philharmonic to the railway station. It lasted until midnight, and even a heavy fall of rain failed to disperse the people.

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.

Jailed political activist Babaryka answers questions about current political situation in Belarus

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.

In February 2021, Viktar Babaryka started to be tried. As the case is being considered by the Supreme Court, there will be no opportunity to appeal against the would-be verdict. Babaryka’s lawyers applied for taking the trial to a lower court, but in vain. He is accused of creating and managing an organized 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.

The Belarusian human rights community recognised Viktar and Eduard Babaryka as political prisoners, as well as Maryia Kalesnikava, the coordinator of Babaryka’s election HQ, and Maksim Znak, the election team’s lawyer.

Charges against Viktar Babaryka announced