The trial of one of Belarus's leading opposition politicians began yesterday in Minsk. Andrei Sannikov, who stood against the authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko in elections in December, is accused of organising riots in the aftermath of the vote, and could be jailed for up to 15 years.
From behind the white metal bars of the cage for the accused in the courtroom yesterday, Mr Sannikov, 57, answered questions from prosecutors with a solemn look on his face. He said that the protests were "completely peaceful" and added that damage to government buildings was a provocation, and not carried out by the protesters.
Seven others have already been sentenced to prison terms of between two and four years for their role in organising post-election rallies, including one of Mr Sannikov's campaign workers, who yesterday received a two-year sentence for "violating public order".
In September last year, Oleg Bebenin, an opposition journalist who planned to help Mr Sannikov in his presidential campaign, was found hanged in suspicious circumstances. Colleagues and friends suspected that it was a politically motivated killing, but authorities said that Mr Bebenin hanged himself.
Mr Lukashenko, who has run Belarus since 1994, was accused by international observers of rigging the election, and the crackdown on protesters in its aftermath was condemned across the globe.
Opposition forces, who believe they have the support of around half of Belarusians, have been further harassed after a bomb blast earlier this month on the Minsk metro. The blast, in a country with little history of terrorism, has been pinned on mentally unstable youths, but Mr Lukashenko demanded that opposition newspapers and politicians were questioned, hinting that they might have links to the blast. He has also said that a surfeit of "nauseating" democracy was one of the prime causes of the attack. The President repeatedly refers to the country's democratic opposition as a "fifth column", with nefarious foreign backers, that is trying to destroy the country.
Mr Sannikov was considered the leading opposition challenger to Mr Lukashenko in December, although officially he won just 2.5 per cent of the vote, compared to 80 per cent for the incumbent. He was badly beaten by riot police with truncheons at the time of his arrest, and his wife, the journalist Irina Khalip, also faces charges for her role in the protests and is currently under house arrest.
Mr Sannikov's mother, who attended yesterday's court hearing, told Radio Liberty that she feared the trial would be rigged. "I'm seeing the beginning of a show trial," said Alla Sannikova. "There are no rights, no laws, no fair trials... I'm praying to God for help."
Mr Lukashenko further emphasised his pariah status this week by calling the European Commission president, Jose Manuel Barroso, a "bastard" for having him banned from events to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Territory in both Ukraine and Belarus was affected by the accident, which took place near the border between the countries when both were part of the Soviet Union.
The Ukrainian President, Viktor Yanukovych, the Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev, and other dignitaries commemorated the anniversary in Kiev on Tuesday, while Mr Lukashenko remained in Belarus, allegedly deprived of an invite because Mr Barroso had told the Ukrainians he would not come if the Belarusian leader was invited.
"Who does that bastard Barroso think he is anyway?" Mr Lukashenko said. "There was once a Barroso in Portugal, but they kicked him out and put him to work in the European Commission instead." He also called the Ukrainian leadership "lousy" for bowing to the pressure.
Kiev responded: "On such a day, any quarrel or accusation is tantamount to dancing on the bones of the dead."
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