The Minsk City Court has sentenced U.S. citizen Emanuel Zeltser to three years in prison, finding him guilty of "attempted industrial espionage" and use of forged documents.
Zeltser's secretary, Russian national Vladlena Funk -- identified by some sources also as Vladlena Bruskova -- was sentenced on August 11 to a year in prison in the same trial on similar charges.
The Zeltser trial was held behind closed doors. Zeltser's lawyer in Belarus, Dzmitry Harachka, told journalists that his client is going to appeal the verdict. According to Harachka, the accusations are "absurd."
"There was no evidence to support the prosecution case and there is not any. I feel ashamed for the Belarusian judiciary," Belapan quoted Harachka as saying after the verdict.
Harachka did not disclose any details of the trial, saying he signed an obligation not to do that.
More Questions Than Answers
Emanuel Zeltser's brother, Mark Zeltser, claims that self-exiled Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky orchestrated the arrest of his brother over the disputed assets of the late Georgian oligarch Badri Patarkatsishvili.
According to this version of events, when Emanuel Zeltser traveled in Minsk to arrange some matters connected with Patarkatsishvili's inheritance, Berezovsky gave Zeltser his own plane but simultaneously informed Belarusian authorities that the latter would be carrying falsified documents with him. Zeltser was arrested at the Minsk airport, immediately after he got off the plane.
When Patarkatsishvili suddenly died in London in February, his assets became the subject of a dispute between Patarkatsishvili's widow and Patarkatsishvili's step-cousin, Joseph Kay, who was represented by Emanuel Zeltser. In May, a court in Tbilisi recognized Joseph Kay as a legitimate executor of Patarkatsishvili's estate.
Kay tells RFE/RL that he is sure it was Berezovsky who arranged for Zeltser's arrest in Minsk in March, "because, first of all, he has threatened not only Mr. Zeltser but myself as well, that he was going to destroy us unless we helped him to get 50 percent of this supposed wealth Mr. Patarkatsishvili had."
According to Berezovsky, who spoke with RFE/RL shortly after Zeltser's trial began on July 30, Zeltser forged Patarkatsishvili's testament in Kay's favor.
Berezovsky described Zeltser as "an absolute world-class swindler, who deceived thousands of people in the United States, and not only in the United States. It is a known fact."
Berezovsky confirmed the rumors that he gave his testimony in the Zeltser case to Belarusian investigators in London, but denied he secretly traveled to Minsk to stand as a witness in the trial on August 5.
Victim Of U.S.-Belarusian Row?
Zeltser was arrested on March 12, shortly after Minsk asked the U.S. ambassador to leave Belarus following U.S. sanctions against the Belarusian oil concern Belnaftakhim. A series of diplomatic expulsions reduced the staffs of the U.S. Embassy in Minsk and the Belarusian Embassy in Washington to five diplomats on each side.
Washington voiced protests over Zeltser's detention and raised concerns about his health.
While in custody, Zeltser was allegedly deprived of medicines prescribed for him in the United States. The Belarusian authorities accused Zeltser of smuggling narcotics into Belarus. "Over 100 tablets, containing drugs and psychotropic substances were seized from Zeltser," KGB spokesman Valery Nadtachayeu said in March. But the drug-related charges were dropped after Harachka explained that the tablets were to treat Zeltser's back ailment.
In April, U.S. Consul Caroline Savage visited Zeltser in custody. According to Savage, Zeltser told her that he had been beaten on the second and third days of his detention.
Some Belarusian human rights activists have suggested that Minsk may be using Zeltser as a bargaining chip in its relations with the United States.
"The [ongoing parliamentary] election campaign in Belarus is a time of increased risk for foreigners who come to visit our country, because you come with your own goals but then become hostage to some political situation," United Civic Party leader Anatol Lyabedzka says.
"Thus, it is uncomfortable for Americans to come today to Belarus because the official Minsk is in a state of information, political, and diplomatic war against the U.S."