A Belarusian court on Friday sentenced Ales Bialiatski, Belarus’ leading human rights defender and one of the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize winners, to 10 years in prison.

Bialiatski and three other top figures from the Viasna human rights center he founded have been convicted of financing actions that violate public order and smuggling, Viasna reported Friday.

Valiantsin Stefanovich received a nine-year sentence; Uladzimir Labkovicz seven years; and Dzmitry Salauyou was sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment in absentia.

Bialiatski and two of his associates were arrested and jailed after mass protests over the 2020 election that gave authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko a new term. Salauyou managed to leave Belarus before being arrested.

Nobel Prize winner Ales Bialiatski during a court hearing in Minsk in January.Vitaly Pivovarchik / AFP – Getty Images

Lukashenko, who has ruled the former Soviet country with an iron fist since 1994, unleashed a brutal crackdown on protesters, the biggest in the country’s history. More than 35,000 people were arrested and thousands were beaten by the police.

During the trial, which took place behind closed doors, Bialiatski, 60, and his colleagues were confined to a cage in the courtroom. Twenty-one months have passed behind bars since the arrest.

In courtroom photos released Friday by Belarus’s state news agency, Belta Bialiatksi, dressed in black, looked pale but calm.

Viasna said after the verdict that the four activists maintained their innocence.

In his last speech before the court, he urged the authorities to «stop the civil war in Belarus.» Bialiatski said it became clear to him from the case files that “investigators were fulfilling the task they were given: to deprive human rights defenders in Viasna at all costs, destroy Viasna and stop our job».

Belarusian opposition leader in exile, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, denounced the court’s verdict on Friday as «appalling.» “We must do everything we can to fight this shameful injustice (and) set them free,” Tsikhaouskaya wrote in a tweet.

The Norwegian Helsinki Committee, a non-governmental organization that works to ensure that human rights are respected in practice, said it was «shocked by the cynicism behind the sentences just handed down against our Belarusian friends in Minsk.»

“The trial shows how the Lukashenka regime punishes our fellow human rights defenders for standing up to oppression and injustice,” Secretary General Berit Lindeman said in a statement.