Belarus: Rights activist jailed for tax evasion

A leading human rights activist was convicted of tax evasion and sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison yesterday at a trial condemned by many as politically motivated.

Ales Belyatsky, 49, heads Vesna, Belarus's most prominent rights group, which reported on alleged irregularities in last December's presidential election. The election, in which Alexander Lukashenko won another term, was criticised by international observers. Mr Belyatsky's group provided legal assistance to those arrested in the ensuing protests.

The verdict was read out to cries of "Shame" from the courtroom. "My case is politically motivated," Mr Belyatsky said. "I'm fighting for human rights, but now I feel like a voice crying in the desert." He was charged with tax evasion after Polish and Lithuanian authorities provided data about his overseas accounts. Vesna says the accounts had to be used to get cash from donors because Belarusian law left him no other option.

The US embassy in Minsk condemned the verdict and urged Belarusian authorities "to release Belyatsky and all political prisoners". The European Union's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton deplored the sentence as "clearly politically motivated".