Moscow: Jailed Nobel Prize winner Ales Bialiatski went on trial in Minsk on Thursday in what supporters see as a bid to clamp down on Viasna, Belarus's top rights group which he founded.
Bialiatski, who was co-awarded last year's Nobel Peace Prize, founded Viasna (Spring), the authoritarian country's most prominent rights group, in 1996.
Bialiatski and his associates Valentin Stefanovich and Vladimir Labkovich could be seen in the defendants' cage in the courtroom at the start of the hearing, images released by Russian news agency RIA Novosti showed.
Grey-haired Bialiatski was sitting on a bench inside the cage wearing a black hoodie, green trousers and sneakers.
The two other defendants sat on either side of a bench behind him, looking solemn in the cage guarded by four armed policemen.
Bialiatski, 60, and his associates were jailed after large-scale demonstrations against the regime in 2020, when authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko claimed victory in elections deemed fraudulent by the international community.
Backed by Russian leader Vladimir Putin, Lukashenko cracked down on the opposition movement, jailing his critics or pushing them into exile.
A fourth defendant, Dmitry Solovyov, is being tried in absentia after he fled to neighbouring Poland despite a travel ban.
"I do not trust this trial and what will happen in it... It is a fake trial," he said, calling the accusations "absurd" and dismissing the legal procedure as "theatre".
"There is no law in Belarus, no rule of law. The process is entirely controlled by a gangster government," he said.
The high-profile trial will be followed by those of independent journalists and Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the leader of the opposition movement who lives in exile.
Bialiatski, Stefanovich and Labkovich have been in detention since July 2021.
They were initially accused of tax evasion.
Viasna said in November that the rights campaigners now stand accused of smuggling a "large amount of cash" into Belarus to allegedly fund opposition activities.
On Thursday, all three pleaded not guilty to the charges.
They face between seven and 12 years of imprisonment.
On Monday, several employees of Tut.by, the largest independent news outlet in Belarus, including its editor-in-chief Marina Zolotova will go on trial.
They face a number of charges including tax evasion and "inciting enmity".
The media outlet was designated "extremist" in 2021.
Belarusian-Polish journalist and activist Andrzej Poczobut, 49, will be put in the dock in the western city of Grodno on January 16.
He was detained in March 2021 and charged with incitement to hatred and "calls for actions aimed at causing harm to the national security of Belarus," according to Viasna.
He faces up to 12 years in prison, if convicted.
On January 17, Tikhanovskaya will face trial in absentia.
The 40-year-old faces a litany of charges including high treason, conspiracy to seize power in an unconstitutional way and creating and leading an extremist organisation.
Tikhanovskaya claimed victory in Belarus's contested 2020 presidential election but now lives in exile in Lithuania.
She ran in place of her husband Sergei Tikhanovsky, a charismatic YouTube blogger who galvanised the opposition.
Authorities cut his campaign short by arresting him on charges of violating public order.
In 2021, he was found guilty of organising riots, inciting social hatred and other charges and sentenced to 18 years in prison.
According to Viasna, there were 1,448 political prisoners in Belarus as of December 31. — AFP