MINSK -- Paval Sevyarynets, a co-chairman of the nonregistered opposition Belarusian Christian Democratic Party, has received his fifth consecutive 15-day jail term for allegedly calling on people to participate in an unsanctioned rally.
The Soviet district court in Minsk on July 8 found Sevyarynets guilty of calling on the public to take part in the rally in the Belarusian capital on June 7.
Sevyarynets, who took part in the hearing via Skype from a detention center in Minsk, rejected the accusation, noting that he had already been sentenced to 15 days in jail for taking part in the rally in question, as well as receiving three other 15-day jail terms for taking part in other rallies.
Sevyarynets also stated that the rally near Minsk's Kamarouski market on June 7 was organized by initiative groups supporting eight potential presidential candidates, which is allowed by the constitution during an election campaign.
Sevyarynets is one of dozens of activists and politicians who were detained in Minsk and several other cities across Belarus during the June 8 rallies at which hundreds of demonstrators were collecting signatures necessary to register alternative presidential candidates for the election, scheduled for August 9.
The sight of thousands of people snaking along streets in towns and cities across Belarus to sign petitions for opposition would-be candidates has apparently spooked authoritarian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who has ruled since 1994 and is seeking a sixth term.
Since the opposition rallies and gatherings started, Lukashenka has ordered arrests, including of two key opposition leaders, sacked his government, and vowed there will be no Maidan-style revolution in Belarus -- a reference to the protests that pushed a Russia-friendly president from power in neighboring Ukraine in 2014.
United Nations experts recently urged the Belarusian government to abandon its “policy of arbitrary arrests, violence, and intimidation” against political activists, rights defenders, journalists, and bloggers ahead of a presidential election.
The media-freedom group Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has called on Minsk to release all the journalists currently being held and to “allow the press to cover the country’s upcoming elections without fear of prosecution.” At least six bloggers have been detained since June 15, the group says.
The latest rallies in Belarus followed the arrest on June 18 of Viktar Babaryka, a potential opponent of Lukashenka in the presidential election who is under investigation for alleged financial crimes he denies.
Babaryka had looked to be gaining as a major force in the election and is said to have compiled more than four times the number of signatures needed to be a candidate.
Critics of Lukashenka, who has been in power in Belarus for more than 25 years, say his government has shown little tolerance for dissent and independent media.
The country has been the target of U.S. and EU sanctions over its poor rights record and lack of fair elections, but Belarus and the West have recently sought to mend ties to reduce Russia’s influence in the country.
Sevyarynets also has 30 more days of jail time to serve for taking part in unsanctioned public protests against deeper integration with Russia. Those protests took place in Belarus in December.