Relatively Light Sentences
The sentences handed down today by Judge Leanid Yasinovich were more lenient than those recommended by the prosecution -- but harsh from the perspective of the defendants and their supporters.
know that the elections were falsified. They are afraid of the truth." -- opposition leader
The four -- Tsimafey Dranchuk, Mikalay Astreyka, Enira Branitskaya, and Alyaksandr Shalayka -- were charged with belonging to an unregistered organization "infringing upon the interests and rights of citizens."
That's a far cry from the accusations made by authorities when the four were originally arrested. Then, state officials suggested that the activists were plotting to overthrow the state and launch terrorist attacks in Minsk.
On August 2, prosecutors recommended the accused be given sentences of two to three years.
In the end, Astreyka received a sentence of two years. Dranchuk was sentenced to one year, and Branitskaya and Shalayka each received six-month sentences. The time they have already served means that at least Branitskaya and Shalayka are due to be released soon.
Relatives Angry At Closed-Door Trial
Information about the trial has been scant, with the public denied access and little press coverage.
Since their detention in February, relatives of the accused have complained that their visiting rights have been restricted.
Volha Antsypovich, the wife of defendant Tsimafey Dranchuk, gave birth to a baby son while her husband was in prison.
"I think our children will grow up to become very good people," she said. "Our son, while growing up, will know and remember that when he was born, his father was not able to give me flowers or write me a note and give it to the maternity hospital.
"Even if this regime will not change by the time Platon [their son] becomes an adult, this regime has already made a staunch opponent [out of him] at the time of his birth," she added.
The wives of both Astreyka and Shalayka are currently pregnant as well.
'Struggle Against The Truth'
The defendants have argued that their NGO, Partnership, was only interested in election monitoring.
Opposition leader Alyaksandr Milinkevich, who lost by a wide margin to Lukashenka in the March presidential election, has spoken out in support of the defendants.
"They [the authorities] have already begun to fight people who did nothing but had an intention to do something. What did these people want to do? They wanted to monitor the [presidential] election and they wanted to do an exit poll. This is done in all countries, even in those that are not very civilized," Milinkevich said on July 28.
"The authorities are afraid because they know that they lie and they know that the elections were falsified. They are afraid of the truth. Therefore, it is a struggle against the truth," he added.
Ambassadors of several European Union countries have also criticized the trial -- in particular, the fact that it is being held behind closed doors.
German Ambassador Martin Hecker, speaking outside the courtroom on July 31, compared the proceedings to the show trials that took place during the Nazi and Stalin eras. He also decried the fact that the work of independent election-monitoring groups is considered illegal in Belarus.
And the British ambassador to Belarus, Brian Bennett, said the trial is a worrying development. "We're here to show that we are keeping an eye on the process and to show our support for the democratic process in general," he added. "But also to show the authorities that we are concerned about developments here."
The activists were arrested in accordance with amendments to the country's Criminal Code. President Alyaksandr Lukashenka signed off on the amendments in December 2005.
The changes make it a crime punishable by up to two years in jail to "discredit" Belarus in the eyes of foreign organizations and governments. People convicted of circulating "false information" about the country also face similar prison terms under the new law.
The United States and European Union have both spoken out against the amendments.
(RFE/RL's Belarus Service, with agency reports)
Minsk, March 25
THE AUTHORITIES GET TOUGH: RFE/RL's Belarus Service filed these images from the police action against the March 25 demonstration in Minsk. Photographs by Maks Kapran.
THE COMPLETE PICTURE: Click on the image to view a dedicated page with news, analysis, and background information about the Belarusian presidential ballot.