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Analysis: Belarusian Oppositionist Gets Five Years In Prison For Theft

Marynich being led into court last week The Minsk District Court on 30 December sentenced Belarusian opposition politician Mikhail Marynich, 64, to five years in a high-security prison and confiscation of property. The court found him guilty of misappropriating office equipment that the Dzelavaya Initsyyatyva (Business Initiative) association, of which he was chairman, had received from the U.S. Embassy in Minsk for temporary use. Marynich told the court in his final statement the day before that the case against him was "fabricated by the KGB following an order from the authorities." According to Marynich, the court sentenced him to prevent him from participating in the 2006 presidential election. Marynich's lawyers have announced that they will appeal the verdict.

Marynich was arrested on 26 April, two days after he was stopped by traffic police and his suitcase searched by a KGB officer who immediately appeared on the scene. The officer reportedly found $90,000 in Marynich's suitcase. According to Belarusian Television, Marynich confessed that the money came from Russia and was to have been spent on financing "selected candidates" in the 2004 legislative election. However, the KGB apparently found nothing criminal in the possession of such a sum by Marynich, since on 6 May he was formally charged only with illegal possession of classified government documents and an unregistered foreign-made pistol that was found at his dacha. Marynich maintained during the investigation that the pistol was planted by the KGB while the documents were not classified. The charge of theft was added by investigators in August.

Marynich belongs to the "old nomenklatura" in Belarus -- a group of public figures that started their political careers in the era before Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, during the rule of Prime Minister Vyacheslau Kebich. Under Lukashenka, Marynich was minister of foreign economic relations (1994-98) and afterward became Belarusian ambassador to Latvia, Estonia, and Finland. In mid-2001, Marynich resigned his ambassadorial post to challenge Lukashenka in that fall's presidential election. In his resignation letter to then Foreign Minister Mikhail Khvastou, Marynich reportedly said that he planned to work against dictatorship and toward democratic changes.

Lukashenka reacted furiously to Marynich's defection. "Don't you remember [when] you sang me songs and swore allegiance and loyalty?" Lukashenka said in reference to Marynich in the 2001 election campaign. Marynich did not manage to get on the ballot after the Central Election Commission ruled that he failed to collect the 100,000 signatures necessary for registration. Marynich insisted that he had gathered the necessary signatures and accused the Lukashenka government of forcing him out of the presidential race.

Computer Thief?

Eventually, the court held up only one charge against Marynich -- namely, that he stole office equipment from the organization he chaired -- and sentenced him to five years in prison plus the confiscation of his property, including the formerly seized $90,000. Marynich told the court that the trial was a brazen mockery of justice and argued that he had no intention of stealing the office equipment in question, which was temporarily stored in a garage of his son only because the Business Initiative association had been deprived of its office in Minsk.

It is noteworthy that the court ignored repeated statements from the U.S. Embassy in Minsk, which was the legal owner of the equipment allegedly stolen by Marynich, that it had no claims whatsoever against Marynich. U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher on 30 December condemned the conviction of Marynich on what he called "a spurious charge," linking the sentence handed down to the opposition politician to the Belarusian government's campaign to crack down on its opponents. "The United States condemns this abuse and earlier abuses of the judicial system by the Lukashenka regime to persecute Belarusian citizens for their political beliefs," Boucher added.

Many Belarusian independent observers and opposition politicians have also condemned the sentence on Marynich as the harsh and cruel retribution of the ruling regime against a politician who once dared to challenge it politically. "This is nothing new in our state," said former Prime Minister Mikhail Chyhir, who himself spent five months in prison under Lukashenka in 1999 and subsequently received a three-year suspended prison term on charges widely believed to have been politically motivated. "Unfortunately, I think Marynich's appeals will have little effect with the higher courts," Chyhir added.

"The regime is afraid of politicians who could present a personal alternative to Lukashenka," Youth Front leader Pavel Sevyarynets commented. "The regime wants to intimidate [such politicians] with the Marynich case. Five years of prison for Marynich is like another five years of Lukashenka's presidency after he is reelected in 2005 or 2006. It is a signal for the entire society."