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Rights Group: Seven Belarusian Presidential Candidates Face 15 Years In Prison

A man fills in a form detailing the contents of his parcel before he's allowed to pass it to a detained opposition activist inside a prison in Minsk on December 22.
A Belarusian human rights organization says seven presidential candidates who ran against the country's authoritarian leader could face up to 15 years in prison in the wake of postelection violence and massive arrests.

The human rights center Vesna said the security service, which is still called KGB, has filed charges against 20 top opposition figures, including the seven presidential candidates, for organizing mass disturbances.

They include 64-year-old Uladzimer Nyaklyaeu, who was beaten unconscious during the protest and subsequently snatched from his hospital bed by men in plainclothes.

A KGB spokesman, Alyaksandr Antonovich, declined to comment.

More than 600 people, including the candidates, were arrested during mass protests after the December 19 election that gave Alyaksandr Lukashenka a fourth term in office with some 80 percent of the vote. The Interior Ministry said the activists were given sentences from between five to 15 days.

Two of the arrested candidates were later released, but both of them -- Ryhor Kastusyou and Dzmitry Vus -- were summoned to KGB offices today for further questioning.

Relatives and friends of detained opposition activists wait to transfer parcels outside the prison in Minsk.

Earlier, Justice Minister Viktor Golovanov has warned that political parties associated with the protests in Minsk may be "liquidated."

RFE/RL’s Belarus Service reports that some 200 people held a brief candlelight vigil late on December 21 in front of the capital’s Akrestsina prison, where most of those arrested are being held. Chants of “Freedom!” and “Long live Belarus!” were kept to a minimum as uniformed police stood by.

Meanwhile, international criticism is continuing to pour in against Belarus' crackdown on opposition protesters.

U.S. President Barack Obama's spokesman Robert Gibbs said the United States "strongly condemns the actions that the government of Belarus has taken to undermine the democratic process."

EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele told RFE/RL the police crackdown was "unacceptable."

"At the same time," Fuele said, "I think it is important to know that we need engagement for the sake of the Belarusian people, for the sake of civic society in Belarus. We need a framework for our relationship."

Germany summoned the Belarus ambassador in Berlin for a protest and warned Minsk that the jailing of hundreds of opposition activists is "isolating" Belarus from the European Union.

Lukashenka, a former collective farm manager, has ruled Belarus with an iron fist since 1994.

In comments broadcast on December 20 on national television, he said any attempt to stage a "revolution" would be thwarted, adding that there would be no more "senseless democracy" in his country.

"Kids, you are messing with the wrong guy," he warned demonstrators.

with agency reports

Opposition supporters light candles near a picture of jailed presidential candidate Andrey Sannikau outside the Minsk prison where he is being held.

Opposition leader Alyaksandr Milinkevich attended the brief candlelight vigil held near a prison in Minsk where detained demonstrators are being held.

Irena Bohdanova, sister of detained Belarusian opposition presidential candidate Andrey Sannikau, protested outside the Belarus Embassy in London on December 21.