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Former Presidential Candidates In Belarus Sentenced To Jail Terms

Former Presidential Candidates In Belarus Sentenced To Jail
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(WATCH: Footage from inside the courtroom taken by RFE/RL's Belarus Service.)

A court in Belarus has sentenced two opposition leaders to prison terms on charges of organizing a mass protest against the disputed reelection of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

Mikalay Statkevich and Dzmitry Vus, both of whom ran against Lukashenka in the December 19 poll, were sentenced to six and 5 1/2 years in prison, respectively.

Alyaksandr Klaskouski, an opposition figure who stood trial with the two ex-candidates, was found guilty of involvement in the rally and given a five-year prison term.

Four other opposition activists were sentenced to between three and four years in jail for participating in the protest.

All had pleaded not guilty.

Prosecutors accused Statkevich and Vus of leading an armed mob that sought to damage property and seize the government building in Minsk.

Longest Sentences Yet

They had demanded an eight-year term for Statkevich, seven years for Vus, 8 1/2 years for Klaskouski, and four years for the remaining defendants.

Michael Mann, spokesman for EU foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton, denounced the developments.

"We saw the recent sentences against members of the opposition. Now we condemn this in the strongest terms. We want to see fair and free elections," Mann said.

"We want to see Mr. Lukashenka adopting democracy as the rest of Europe has done and this is completely unacceptable. And the foreign affairs ministers on Monday [May 23] extended the sanctions against Belarus as a result of the sentences that were imposed, which were completely unacceptable."

The sentences against Statkevich and Vus are the lengthiest so far in the string of trials against participants of the postelection protest in central Minsk, during which some 600 people were detained.

The longest term prior to the May 26 sentences had been given to Andrey Sannikau, Lukashenka's main opposition challenger in the election, who was given five years in jail earlier this month on similar charges.

Uladzimer Nyaklyaeu and Vital Rymasheuski -- who also challenged Lukashenka in the December vote -- were handed two-year suspended sentences last week for their role in the protests.

Belarusian human rights activist Lyudmila Hraznova said the sentences send a clear signal to the political opposition and to society: “[These sentences] made even more enemies for Lukashenka. He is closing the door to dialogue with the opposition. It is a disaster for the country.”

Volha Bandarenka, the wife of activist Dzmitry Bandarenka, was sentenced to two years in prison as part of the Sannikau trial on May 14. She condemned Lukashenka for "trading in hostages."

"He is collecting as many hostages as he can. He's going to try, because he has a program. He knows that it happened in the past that he collected hostages and traded them," Bandarenka said.

"That worked in the past. Now, in general, so far, fortunately, that plan isn't working -- trading hostages. But since he thinks that it worked in the past, maybe he thinks it still will."

Lukashenka, famously branded "Europe's last dictator" by Washington, has run Belarus with an iron fist for nearly 17 years, cracking down on opposition and independent media.

The trials have drawn strong criticism from the West, whose monitors deemed the presidential election "flawed."

Western governments have responded by imposing sanctions and a travel ban on Lukashenka and more than 100 of his associates.

written by Claire Bigg with reporting from RFE/RL's Belarus Service
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