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Belarusian Court Upholds Sentence On U.S. Lawyer

Emanuel Zeltser in April
MINSK (Reuters) -- The Supreme Court in Belarus has upheld a three-year sentence on a U.S. lawyer convicted of industrial espionage, one of several irritants in Washington's relations with the ex-Soviet state.

Emanuel Zeltser was convicted in August, four months after arriving in Belarus to represent Josef Kay, a relative of the late Georgian businessman Badri Patarkatsishvili.

Zeltser, also convicted of carrying forged documents, is in poor health, suffering from a back ailment.

"The sentence remains in effect, there are no changes," Zeltser's lawyer, Dzmitry Harachka, told reporters.

"We had hoped that the Supreme Court would take a considered decision and quash the verdict. I believe the verdict is completely unlawful. The defendant denies any guilt."

Zeltser was arrested at the height of a diplomatic row with Washington and his detention and closed trial prompted U.S. protests.

Belarusian authorities asked the U.S. ambassador to leave in March after accusing Washington of toughening sanctions against oil producer Belneftekhim.

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has long been accused by the West of violating basic rights, but relations have improved with the release in August of detainees deemed political prisoners.

Parliamentary elections last month were described by Western observers as improved but still short of acceptable standards. The European Union subsequently lifted a visa ban on the president.

Harachka said it was up to Zeltser whether to appeal his case to the Supreme Court's chairman. He could also be subject to a presidential pardon, as occurred with opposition activists, including former presidential candidate Alyaksandr Kazulin.

"If he does request a pardon, it implies recognition that he is guilty of crimes he did not commit," Harachka said.