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McDonald's linked to crackdown in Belarus

McDonald's has been accused of turning a blind eye to gross human rights violations in Belarus after evidence from the global fast-food chain was used by prosecutors in the trials of pro-democracy activists.

Scores of anti-government protesters, including five former presidential candidates who ran against strongman Alexander Lukashenko last year, are being hauled before courts in one of the worst crackdowns in the quasi-Soviet state in recent years.

The list of charges revolves around accusations that pro-democracy campaigners, who on 19 December protested against election results instigated a "mass riot". The broadly peaceful protest, attended by an estimated 300,000 people, was crushed by riot police and followed by mass arrests – roundly condemned by human rights groups, the EU and the United States.

Copies of indictments obtained by The Independent show that among the charges is the allegation that protesters caused 8.4m roubles (£1,680) of damage to a McDonald's branch which had to close. Campaigners say the figure must have been provided by McDonald's which has kept silent on the crackdown. One of the indictments for ex-presidential candidate Dmitri Uss lists organisations disrupted "as a result of criminal actions" He is on trial with fellow presidential candidate Nikolai Statkevich, both facing 15-year jail terms for allegedly inciting an armed "mob" to damage property and "seize the government building".

Legal sources in Minsk say similar allegations are being used in the trials of ex-presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov and his journalist wife Irina Khalip. She has been told her son may be put in an orphanage if she is found guilty. Mr Sannikov faces 15 years in jail and his wife faceslesser charges of "organising actions disrupting social order".

Irina Bogdanova, Mr Sannikov's sister, said McDonald's should condemn the use of their evidence.

A McDonald's spokeswoman said: "The restaurant's security team were very concerned about the safety and security of both our customers and staff... We provided information in response to an official inquiry.".

Mike Harris, from the Index on Censorship, said that by keeping their heads down during the Soviet-style show trials, McDonalds was doing itself no favours. "It's not clear why any Western firm would invest where the rule of law is entirely arbitrary," he said.