Alexander Lukashenko turns the screw as opposition leader's wife targeted


Shaun Walker
Tuesday 17 May 2011 00:00 BST

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Louise Thomas

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A court in Belarus yesterday handed down a two-year suspended jail sentence to Irina Khalip, a journalist and the wife of opposition presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov, who was jailed for five years over the weekend.

Both court cases followed protests that erupted after elections, widely believed to have been rigged, returned the long-serving authoritarian ruler Alexander Lukashenko to the presidency last December.

Ms Khalip will have to face the court again in two years, when the jail sentence could come into force, and in the interim she is not allowed to leave Minsk or be out of her house later than 10pm. She was greeted outside the court by cheers from friends and well-wishers.

She called her husband a "national hero" and said that she would now try to return her life to normal, for the sake of her four-year-old son. "First, I'm going to write a letter to my husband," said Ms Khalip, who has spent the past five months under house arrest.

"After that, I'm going to get a team of professionals in to sort out my flat, where for the last three and a half months there have been KGB employees present, and I'm also going to change all of my locks, because the keys have changed hands as often as avillage in the civil war. Only after all of that will I start on my appeal."

Ms Khalip wrote articles highly critical of Mr Lukashenko's regime for Novaya Gazeta, the Russian daily part-owned by Alexander Lebedev, proprietor of The Independent. "This sentence has absolutely nothing to do with justice or courts," said Dmitry Muratov, its editor, who last night was on his way to Minsk to meet Ms Khalip. "She is being penalised for carrying out her duties as a journalist, and as a spouse," he said. She was a "hostage" of the regime, he said, and had been told that she should not continue to write articles if she wanted to remain free.

More than 700 people were arrested, of whom more than 20 have been jailed for organising or participating in illegal protests. The authorities say these involved assaults and damage to property, while opposition leaders say the violence was started by government agents and riot police.

Ms Khalip also said she doubted that her husband would spend his full five-year term in jail, but that the regime would seek to win concessions from the West in return for releasing him. In the past, Mr Lukashenko has released political prisoners in exchange for loans and engagement from the West.

Europe has tried to reach out to the Belarusian dictator in recent years, lifting sanctions and promising financial aid if December's elections were free and fair, but in the aftermath of the protests the European Union imposed a travel ban on Mr Lukashenko and 150 Belarusian officials.

The Belarusian leader has long been seen as a skilled political operator who has been able to play off Moscow and the EU, winning concessions and cash from both, but analysts are now asking whether the moustachioed strongman might have lost touch with reality. Mr Lukashenko's rhetoric in recent weeks has become increasingly aggressive, as he has criticised "nauseating" democracy and the country's political opposition, and even suggested that Belarus's failure to qualify for last weekend's Eurovision Song Contest was part of a sinister Western plot against the country.

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