MINSK -- More than a dozen activists in Belarus, including a Russian citizen, have been handed prison sentences amid a continued crackdown following months of protests sparked by a disputed presidential election last August that authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka claims to have won.
Tens of thousands of Belarusians have taken to the streets after the presidential poll to demand Lukashenka step down and new elections be held. He has refused to hold talks with opposition leaders. Security officials have arrested thousands in the protests in a crackdown that has become more brutal with each passing month.
In the latest wave of court cases, the Moscow district court in the western city of Brest on May 7 sentenced a Russian citizen, Danila Chemodanov, to one year in prison for violating public order.
That came hours after seven Belarusian nationals -- Viktar Labko, Syarhey Naulik, Kiryl Lud, Uladzislau Navitski, Radzivon Kandratsyuk, Viktoryya and Alena Lyskovich -- were sentenced to open prison terms of between 18 months and two years on similar charges.
The open prison system is known across the former Soviet Union as "khimiya" (chemistry), a name that goes back to the late 1940s when convicts were sent to work at dangerous industries, mainly chemical factories, and allowed to live in special dormitories instead of being incarcerated in penitentiaries.
These days, a "khimiya" sentence means that a convict will stay in a dormitory not far from their permanent address and work either at their workplace as usual or at a state entity defined by the penitentiary service.
Six other Belarusian citizens -- Alena Hnauk, Maryya Skakavets, Vasil Charnteski, Yury Chubryk, Valyantsina Zhukouskaya, and Lyudmila Lutskaya -- were handed parole-like "freedom limitation" sentences for periods between 18 months and two years.
The 14 defendants were found guilty of "active participation in unsanctioned rallies that disrupted public order" in Brest on September 13.
One of the defendants in the case, the 24-year-old Chemodanov, pleaded guilty, while five defendants pleaded partially guilty, and the remaining eight pleaded not guilty.
A day earlier, the Frunze district court in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, sentenced 45-year-old Syarhey Sikorski to nine years in prison after finding him guilty of taking part in mass disorder and the possession and distribution of illegal drugs.
Sikorski was among demonstrators in Minsk on August 11 who protested against the official results of an August 9 presidential election that handed victory to Lukashenka, who has run the country since 1994. Opposition politicians say the vote was rigged and that their candidate, Svyatlana Tsikhaouskaya, won.
When riot police arrived to disperse one rally, demonstrators began pelting them with stones and other objects. Sikorski was present at the rally but said at the trial that he "did not do anything wrong" and was trying to assist people attacked by the police. It was not immediately clear if he had commented on the drug allegations.
Investigators said that when Sikorski was detained at his home in September, he was under the influence of drugs, which they claim was later confirmed by tests that found mephedrone, a synthetic stimulant drug of the amphetamine class, in his body.
The investigators also said that police found the drug in Sikorski's apartment and later investigations revealed that he sold the drugs at least once to an acquaintance.
Meanwhile, the Pershamay district court in the Belarusian capital on May 6 sent another protester, Yauhen Rapin, to three years in "open prison" on charges of damaging a security camera on the wall of a detention center in Minsk during an anti-Lukashenka rally in October.
Rapin, the father of three children, pleaded guilty and asked for a mitigated sentence.
Also on May 6, a court in the western city of Brest sentenced local resident Syarhey Zubovich to 18 months of "freedom limitation," a parole-like sentence for insulting online the then-chief of the Main Directorate for the Fight Against Organized Crime and Corruption, Mikalay Karpyankou, who currently serves as a deputy interior minister.
Zubovich pleaded guilty. The court also ruled that Zubovich's Samsung mobile phone must be confiscated since it was "a tool used to commit the crime."
In another western city, Pruzhany, a court on May 6 sentenced local resident Lyudmila Tsaranu to 18 months of "freedom limitation" for "distributing false information about a police officer via the Internet."
Tsaranu's posts on social networks targeted police officer Syarhey Urodnich, accusing him of "falsification of protocols and lying at the trials" of anti-Lukashenka activists.
Tsaranu rejected the charge, though she refused to testify at the trial.
Several demonstrators have been killed in the postelection violence and some rights organizations say there is credible evidence of torture being used against some of those detained.
In response to the ongoing crackdown, the West has slapped sanctions on top Belarusian officials. Many countries, including the United States, as well as the European Union, have refused to recognize Lukashenka as the legitimate leader of the former Soviet republic.