MINSK -- Questions by the prosecution have concluded on the first day of the trial of Andrey Sannikau, the former presidential candidate charged with organizing what the authorities have called "mass riots" following Belarus's disputed presidential election on December 19.
The 57-year-old Sannikau, a former deputy foreign minister and a co-founder of the Charter 97 rights group, has pleaded innocent. If convicted, he faces up to 15 years in prison.
In a courtroom packed with onlookers, including the ambassadors of Sweden and Hungary as well as U.S. and Russian diplomats, Sannikau listened quietly as an official read out charges that he organized mass disorder by repeatedly urging unsanctioned protests and then leading the December 19 rally itself.
A correspondent with RFE/RL's Belarus Service attending the trial reported that Sannikau, answering questions from prosecutors, defended the protests as "entirely peaceful" and said he believed damage to government buildings was a provocation and not the work of demonstrators.
Today's hearing comes amid a wave of trials targeting high-level opposition figures who played a prominent role in protests against suspected vote-rigging in the December vote, which handed autocratic leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka a fourth term in office. Seven defendants have already been sentenced to between two and four years in prison for their role in orchestrating the protests.
Among those convicted was Dzmitry Bandarenka, a campaign worker for Sannikau, who today was handed a two-year sentence for "violating public order."
Eleven other activists in addition to Sannikau are due to be tried today on similar charges, including four being tried in the same court as Sannikau.
Activists have criticized the conduct of the trials so far, saying prosecutors have offered no incriminating evidence against the defendants. Aleh Hulak, the chairman of the Helsinki rights committee in Belarus, says he has little hope Sannikau will receive a fair trial.
"It's obvious we're seeing a very high level of unprofessionalism," Hulak says. "Maybe they're trying to come up with some facts that correspond to whatever theory they have in their minds, since there's no actual evidence in the case. Everything is unclear. It's a big case from which some pieces have been hastily removed. One thing is clear. There's no court that's able to really conduct a proper trial and evaluate this case."
Sannikau, who was badly beaten at the time of his arrest, is the most senior of the defendants, and was considered the leading opposition candidate despite taking home an official tally of just 2.5 percent of the vote, as compared to Lukashenka's 80 percent.
Sannikau's wife, journalist Iryna Khalip, was also arrested and faces charges for her role in the protests. She is currently under house arrest and has been forbidden from communicating with her husband.
The couple's case drew special attention after authorities briefly threatened to seize custody of their 3-year-old son, Danil, who had been left in the care of his grandparents while his mother and father were in jail.
Ales Belyatsky, head of the Vesna 96 human rights group, told Reuters today he believed the authorities would be hard on Sannikau, who has remained defiant despite his lengthy jail term and mounting health concerns.
Sannikau's trial will be closely watched in the West, where officials imposed sanctions and a travel ban on Lukashenka and more than 100 of his associates following the crackdown.
One of the first to enter the courtroom was Sannikau's mother, Ala Sannikava. Earlier, in an interview with RFE/RL's Belarus Service, Sannikava fought back tears as she said she feared the worst from her son's trial.
"His lawyers say they can't see his blame. But I'm seeing the beginning of a show trial," she said. "It's horrible.... There are no rights, no laws, no fair trials. The law should function, but here it's only when it 'applies.' I'm praying to God for help."
The wave of trials comes as Lukashenka faces growing economic troubles and a hard-currency shortage. Critics have accused the hard-line leader of using the election crackdown and a fatal subway bombing earlier this month to increase security measures in the country and distract the public from the economic downturn.
Some of the harshest restrictions have been leveled at the media. The state news agency Belta reported today that the Belarusian authorities have initiated a court action aimed at closing down two opposition publications, "Narodnaya volya" and "Nasha niva."
written by Daisy Sindelar in Prague, based on reporting by RFE/RL's Belarus Service