Minsk: Belarus on Tuesday handed a suspended jail term to a reporter for a top Polish daily on charges of defaming President Alexander Lukashenko as courts convicted dozens for staging protests against his rule.
Andrei Pochobut, a Belarussian citizen and a member of the Polish minority who writes for the Gazeta Wyborcza, was given the three year suspended sentence by a court in the western city of Grodno, the Vyasna rights group said.
Pochobut (Andrzej Poczobut in Polish), who had been in detention since his arrest in April, was immediately freed inside the courtroom and was met by hundreds of cheering supporters gathered outside, video images showed.
Supporters chanted "Long live!" in Polish as Pochobut, apparently surprised at being allowed to go free, happily gathered his young son Yaroslav in his arms.
"I do not consider myself to be guilty and I will appeal this decision. The court deemed I had defamed Lukashenko because I called him a dictator in my articles," he said outside the court, a witness in Grodno said.
In articles for the Gazeta Wyborcza, a Belarus opposition website and his own blog, Pochobut, 38, had vehemently criticised Lukashenko over December Presidential Elections denounced as fraudulent by the opposition.
Prosecutors used several Gazeta Wyborcza articles as evidence against him, including pieces titled "Lukashenko: Yes, I Rigged the Elections", "In Belarus there are Elections Without Elections" and "This is How Lukashenko Rules".
The trial in Grodno took place behind closed doors, with neither relatives of the accused nor representatives from the Polish embassy allowed to attend.
Strangely, the court fully acquitted the journalist on a separate charge of insulting Lukashenko.
Lukashenko launched a crackdown on the opposition -- unprecedented even in his 17 years of authoritarian rule -- after mass protests on the evening of his landslide re-election victory in December.
Poland, which has led EU outrage over the repression in Belarus, was unimpressed by the verdict, saying the suspended sentence should not be seen as a victory.
"He was found guilty despite the fact that he had done nothing wrong," Polish Foreign Ministry spokesman Marcin Bosacki told reporters in Warsaw.
The opposition sought to stage new protests on Independence Day on Sunday but rallies were broken up by the police and at least 140 people have now been convicted for their involvement in the last two days alone.
Around 100 people were convicted in Minsk and another 40 in other cities, including Gomel, Grodno, Brest, Mogilev and Vitebsk, according to a count of figures released by Minsk-based Vyasna and regional groups.
The protesters were handed sentences of between two and 15 days while others escaped jail but received fines of up to a million Belarussian rubles (USD 200).
Rights groups say that almost 400 people were arrested in the brutal nationwide police crackdown on Sunday`s demonstrations and hearings for the remaining detainees are due to stretch until the end of the week.
Responding to calls for a rally by the Internet-based group "Revolution through the Social Network", protesters had sought to show their dissatisfaction with Lukashenko by simply clapping their hands.
But plain-clothes police agents arrested anyone who joined in the applause, bundling them into waiting detention vans, beating activists and firing tear gas, a correspondent in Minsk said.
The "Revolution through the Social Network" group on Tuesday vowed to continue the protests "under any circumstances", saying Belarussians were discovering their sense of identity and soon tens of thousands would be protesting.
"Citizen Lukashenko!" it told the President in a statement. "If you think you can strike fear into the entire people then you are wrong."
"This will not stop the peaceful acts of protest. We are not fighting for a bit of sausage and USD 20 more pay but for freedom" it added.