A Belarusian court has convicted and sentenced to death two men for a bomb attack in the Minsk subway in April that killed 15 people and wounded around 200 others.
Judge Alyaksandr Fedortsov read out the 114-page verdict in its entirety to a packed courtroom in the closely watched trial of defendants Dzmitry Kanavalau and Uladzislau Kavalyou.
Belarus is the only European state that carries out executions.
In the same verdict, the men were also convicted of a string of violent attacks prior to the subway tragedy.
Many observers were shocked at the sentencing, which came following a trial that was widely regarded as flawed. Eduard Kukan, a member of the European Parliament from Slovakia, called the development "tragic" and said the West must do more to restrain the behavior of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
"[It's] tragic news because it seems that all the efforts of the European institutions and world institutions to try to get Lukashenka to his senses do not work," Kukan said. "So I think that it will be necessary to use stronger measures."
Through her spokeswoman, Maja Kocijancic, EU foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton urged Belarus to join the rest of Europe in banning the death penalty.
"The European Union opposes the use of capital punishment under all circumstances," Kocijancic said. "We believe that the death penalty is a cruel and inhuman punishment that does not allow any reversal, and it fails to provide a deterrence to any criminal behavior and is an unacceptable denial of human dignity and integrity."
Interfax reported that Kanavalau's family intends to apply for a pardon.
The court convicted Kanavalau of planting the bomb in Minsk's busy Oktyabrskaya subway station on April 11 and found both men guilty of constructing and preparing the explosive. During the trial, prosecutors said the men chose the central station in order "to kill as many people as possible."
Delivering the verdict, the judge read out the names of all of those killed or injured in the subway explosion.
The trial began on September 15. Kanavalau initially admitted to carrying out the April bombing in Minsk but then refused to make an opening or closing statement or to testify in his own defense.
In addition, Kanavalau was convicted of carrying out another bombing in Minsk on July 4, 2008, that injured 54 people. Kavalyou was convicted of assisting in that attack as well.
Kanavalau was also convicted of carrying out a terrorist bombing in Vitsebsk in September 2005 that injured nearly 50 people.
Kanavalau and Kavalyou, both 25, are factory workers from the city of Vitsebsk and have been friends since childhood. Prosecutors offered no motive for the attacks, other than that the two men sought to disrupt the country's social order.
Almost as soon as the sentence was read in Minsk, municipal workers in Vitsebsk began emptying out the basement where the two men purportedly constructed the explosives.
Speaking to journalists on November 28, Kavalyou's mother, Liubou Kavalyova, urged the authorities to spare her son's life.
"We don’t have the right to make mistakes," she said. "Too many questions have been left unanswered in the court."
Critics said prosecutors presented scant evidence of the men's involvement in the bombing.
Although it was alleged that Kanavalau was near the explosion, there is no evidence that he was physically harmed. In addition, an analysis by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) of security-camera footage of the scene concluded that it was impossible to tell if the man shown was the defendant and that the footage might have been edited.
No physical evidence connected the two men to the explosives.
Human rights activists have urged Belarus not to apply the death penalty in this case. The last executions in Belarus were carried out in July against two men convicted of a triple murder in 2009.
Amnesty International researcher Heather McGill told RFE/RL that the sentence was "shocking" in view of what she described as a dubious investigation and trial.
"It seems that both men have alleged that they were ill-treated. One of the men claimed that he heard his friend screaming and assumed that he was going to be tortured. And he retracted his statements in court," McGill said.
"And there are many other irregularities in the way that the trial has been conducted, in the way that the judge failed to call vital witnesses such as the metro employees who were at the train station at the time of the explosion, for instance."
Rights activists who launched petition drives against the execution of Dzmitry and Kavalyou say they have collected around 45,000 signatures, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reports.
One signatory, Larisa Androsik, told RFE/RL she has doubts about the country's legal system.
"I, like most people, signed because I don't believe in our justice [system]," Androsik said. "From this whole process, it is absolutely not clear why this happened, how it happened, or who did it. I am not sure that they carried out this explosion. I -- as a Christian -- I am against the death penalty."
Former Belarusian Supreme Soviet Chairman Mechislav Hryb also told RFE/RL that he was "categorically opposed to the death penalty" in Belarus.
"As a person, as a citizen and as a jurist, I was the first to sign a letter appealing for a moratorium on the death penalty. I did this consciously because I have had practical experience to convince me that judicial mistakes do happen, a completely innocent person can be sentenced to death," Hryb said.
"And secondly, I am old enough to believe that no one has the right to take a life, not even the state. It wasn't the state that gave man his life and it isn't the state that should take it away, even if that person is a notorious criminal."
Excuse For Crackdown?
The April subway bombing triggered a harsh crackdown on dissent by Lukashenka's government.
Minsk-based political scientist Yury Chavysau told RFE/RL that the trial had raised as many questions as it had answered. He said some people believed government structures may have orchestrated the attack to justify further repression.
"People think that the authorities are guilty in what happened and consider Dzmitry Kanavalau and Uladzislau Kavalyou as two scapegoats, as victims of unjust actions by the state," Chavysau said.
Former Belarusian KGB Lieutenant Colonel Valery Kostka was also critical of the trial and the verdicts.
"Not all doubts and issues have been resolved. Such a harsh sentence will undermine confidence in the authorities even more -- this time, by undermining the judicial system," Kostka said.
"Because this example and the example of many previous trials shows that the judicial system in Belarus does not protect people but follows political instructions. And the justice system is being turned into a punishment organ of the dictatorship."
written in Prague by Robert Coalson based on reporting by RFE/RL's Belarus Service and RFE/RL's Brussels correspondent Rikard Jozwiak