Minsk: A Belarussian court on Thursday jailed leading human rights activist Ales Belyatsky for 4 1/2 years on tax evasion charges, sparking an outcry in the European Union and particularly in EU neighboring countries which unwittingly aided his prosecution.
Belyatsky, 49, heads Vesna-96, the best known rights group in the former Soviet republic, which has campaigned for scores of opposition activists prosecuted by the government of President Alexander Lukashenko.
Cries of "Shame!" rang out in the Minsk courtroom from his supporters when judge Sergei Bondarenko handed down sentence, saying it was impossible for him to pass a lesser punishment.
The outcome, in the face of fierce condemnation of the trial in the West, supported the view that Lukashenko has written off relations with the European Union for a while and is not relying much on Western help to see him through a financial crisis.
With fresh loans from Moscow in his pocket, Lukashenko, once dubbed Europe`s last dictator by the United States, appears to be signaling that he will not relax his hardline policies toward the political opposition in exchange for Western help.
High-ranking Belarus financial officials have expressed concern that Lukashenko`s hardline policies could endanger possible credit of up to $7 billion from the International Monetary Fund.
But in the past few weeks Belarus has found financial help more forthcoming from Russia. Last week Sberbank and regional lender Eurasian Development Bank announced they would put up a loan of $1 billion to help it over its crisis, which was caused by excessive pre-election public spending.
Russian gas giant Gazprom has also agreed to lower the price of Russian gas to Belarus from next year in exchange for acquiring ownership of Belarus`s gas pipeline network Beltransgaz.
"Sentence for human rights"
"Sentencing Ales Belyatsky is a sentence for human rights in Belarus. It confirms that the current regime does not respect basic standards of civil rights and freedoms," Poland`s foreign ministry said in a statement.
"The charge of tax evasion was merely an excuse to again attack the non-governmental sector, which the regime wants to take full control of," it said.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Audronius Azubalis said: "This case must be seen as part of a broader pattern of harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders in Belarus." He called for Belyatsky`s release.
Belyatsky was arrested and charged after officials in Poland and Lithuania unwittingly helped his prosecution by supplying information about bank accounts held in his name after a request by Belarus`s financial authorities.
The furor that ensued led to a public apology in August by Warsaw and also caused high-level embarrassment in Lithuania.
Senior European Union officials had earlier called for Belyatsky`s release, saying the charges against him were "a politically motivated pretext to target his important work to the benefit of victims of repression."
The prosecution had asked for a five-year sentence to be handed down on Belyatsky, who listened to his sentence from inside a metal cage in the courtroom.
Vesna-96 says the money held by Belyatsky in Poland and Lithuania belonged to the organization and was set aside for paying for human rights activities and supporting political prisoners and their families.
It had latterly been used to support families of opposition activists arrested in a police sweep last December after mass street rallies against Lukashenko`s re-election for a fourth term.
Two opposition leaders are still in jail for their part in those protests.
The EU and the United States introduced travel restrictions and other sanctions against Lukashenko and other officials after an election widely criticised as rigged.