A Belarusian court has sentenced former presidential candidate Andrey Sannikau to five years in a maximum-security prison on charges of organizing mass protests following last year's disputed presidential election.
Sannikau, a former deputy foreign minister and co-founder of the Charter 97 rights group, was found guilty of organizing mass protests.
Four young opposition activists, who had been tried together with Sannikau, were also found guilty of involvement in the riots and handed sentences. Uladzimir Yaromenak, Ilya Vasilevich, and Fyodar Mirzayanau were all sentenced to three years' imprisonment; a fourth, Aleh Hnedchik, was sentenced to 3 1/2 years.
The prosecution on May 13 demanded a seven-year term for Sannikau on charges of organizing mass protests after last year's the December 19 presidential election.
The prosecution told a Minsk court that video evidence proved that Sannikau had organized riots in Minsk following the disputed reelection of authoritarian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
Sannikau, 57, had pleaded not guilty to the charges. A distant second to Lukashenka in the polls with almost 2.5 percent of the vote, went on trial on April 27.
Lukashenka, called by the West "Europe's last dictator," has run Belarus with an iron fist for nearly 17 years, retaining Soviet-style controls over the economy and cracking down on opposition and independent media.
Four other former presidential candidates -- Uladzimer Nyaklyaeu, Vital Rymasheuski, Mikalay Statkevich, and Dzmitry Vus -- are also facing possible jail time over their alleged organization of mass riots.
Another former presidential candidate fled the country and was granted asylum in Czech Republic earlier this year.
Sannikau could have faced a maximum of 15 years in jail.
Complaints Of Torture, Threats
RFE/RL's Belarus Service reports that after the verdict was read, Sannikau had enough time to say, "Take care of my relatives," while people in the courtroom shouted "Freedom," and "Shame on the government." Many were crying.
"I know that my family and all people in Belarus will be happy once freedom arrives. Belarus lives!" he said, to which people in the courtroom replied, "Freedom lives!"
Sannikau's lawyer said after the announcement that there had been absolutely no evidence to convict Sannikau.
She described the verdict as "illegal and without grounds. From our point of view, the fact of mass disorder was not proven as understood in Article 293 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus."
Sannikau has told the court not to consider his earlier testimonies given in a detention center run by the Belarusian security service, the KGB. He said his statements were given under constant torture and threats of possible harm to his wife and son.
Prosecutors on May 13 demanded a suspended two-year jail term for Sannikau's wife, journalist Iryna Khalip, whose trial started earlier this week.
Child-protection services last year threatened to put Khalip and Sannikau's 3-year-old son into an orphanage, but Khalip's parents managed to secure guardianship.
Sannikau's mother, Alla, said after the announcement of the sentence that the decision was "absurd."
"We have no courts. We have no justice," she added. "One judge rules over everything and decides the fate of people as he pleases."
RFE/RL's Belarus Service asked people on the streets of Belarus if they knew about the ongoing trials of the ex-candidates.
One man in the southeastern city of Homel said the trials reminded him of the Soviet era. "I voted for Sannikau -- but it's dangerous to say anything nowadays," he said.
The trial was watched closely by the West, which has harshly criticized Lukashenka for his brutal crackdown on the opposition after the election.
EU foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton's spokeswoman, Maja Kocijancic, told RFE/RL the decision was "completely unacceptable."
Kocijancic said Ashton "strongly condemns the sentencing on the political grounds" of Sannikau and she was "also deeply concerned about [other] sentences handed out."
She added, "These events are clear reminder of the significant deterioration in the respect for human rights and democratic principles in Belarus since the presidential elections of December of last year, and we believe there have been politically motivated harassments, arrests, and detentions and trials of democratic opposition, of civil society and of the media that are completely unacceptable."
The European Union imposed travel bans and asset freezes on nearly 170 people, including Lukashenka, earlier this year.
Britain called the trial "a new low for rule of law in Belarus."
Robert Golanski, the spokesman for European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek, told RFE/RL all political prisoners must immediately be released in Belarus.
"This is the regime's revenge for courage and openness. People like Sannikau are against a regime which is not for the country and its people," Golanski said. "The president, as well as the European Parliament, calls for the immediate release of all political prisoners of conscience in Belarus."
On May 12 the European Parliament called for the EU to expand the sanctions against Belarus to target state-owned companies.
It was the third time this year the EU Parliament has adopted a resolution condemning the Belarusian crackdown.
The document called the charges against the former presidential candidates "illegal and inadmissible" and urges the Belarusian authorities to acquit the candidates and free them.
The resolution said it also supports an increase of the European Union's assistance to democratic opposition parties, civil society organizations, and independent media outlets.
The U.S. State Department also condemned Sannikau's "politically motivated" conviction, stressing it considered him and other detained candidates to be political prisoners.
In a report issued on May 13, Amnesty International called Sannikau a "prisoner of conscience" and said that candidates, opposition members, and journalists "faced trumped-up charges" in a "fresh assault on civil society in Belarus."
written by Eugen Tomiuc, with contributions from RFE/RL's Belarus Service Deputy Director Bohdan Andrusyshyn and RFE/RL's Brussels correspondent Rikard Jozwiak