Belarus opposition candidate jailed for post-election protest


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One of the leading political opponents of the Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko was sentenced to five years in prison at the weekend for his part in protests that followed presidential elections last December.

Andrei Sannikov stood in the elections, which Mr Lukashenko won comfortably but which international bodies have said were rigged, and later led supporters on to the streets of Minsk to protest against the outcome. The police arrested hundreds of demonstrators, along with almost all the opposition candidates.

Judge Natalya Chetvertakova said Mr Sannikov "led a crowd that committed excesses", as she read the sentence in a central Minsk courtroom on Saturday. "Sannikov is guilty of organising mass disturbances, accompanied by violence against the person, attacks, destruction of property," she said.

Mr Sannikov, 57, is a former deputy foreign minister who has become one of the leading figures in the democratic opposition to Mr Lukashenko, who has ruled the country since 1994.

Mr Sannikov, who called the charges "absurd" and said the demonstrations he led were peaceful, gave a two-fingered victory sign from behind the bars of the defendants' cage, where he was on trial with four co-defendants.

While Mr Lukashenko received another five-year term to govern the country, Mr Sannikov will now spend the next five years in a high-security prison. After the verdict, he shouted: "The main thing is to protect my family." In the corridors of the courtroom, a small group of activists shouted "freedom".

Mr Sannikov's mother Alla, fighting back tears, said: "If you try... to genuinely change the life of our people, to change the life of our country, it's a ticket straight to prison. But I am proud of my son." Mr Sannikov's wife, the journalist Irina Khalip, awaits sentencing for her role in the protests. Mr Sannikov's supporters say that during time spent in jail, the politician was subjected to physical violence and threats about what would happen to him and his family.

Since the December elections, the EU has placed a travel ban on Mr Lukashenko and 150 top Belarusian officials, while the US State Department said at the weekend that it considered Mr Sannikov and four other presidential candidates who are still facing trial to be "political prisoners" and called for their immediate release.

Mr Lukashenko's rhetoric in the months since the protests has hardened, and he has frequently called the political opposition a "fifth column" that is out to destroy Belarus. He insinuated that the opposition might have links to a mysterious bomb blast that killed 13 people on the Minsk metro last month, and said the blast occurred partly because of the "nauseating" surfeit of democracy in the country.

Belarus is still run largely on Soviet lines, with the state controlling most major industries. Recently a severe currency crisis has led to food shortages.