Washington: US President Barack Obama on Friday condemned the sentencing of former opposition presidential candidates in Belarus and vowed to pursue new sanctions against Minsk.
"I strongly condemn the conviction and sentencing of opposition presidential candidates," he said in a White House statement a day after a Minsk court convicted Nikolai Statkevich and Dmitry Uss of organising mass riots.
"In a major step backward for democracy in Belarus, their trials were clearly politically motivated and failed to meet even the most minimal standards required of a fair and independent judiciary," he added.
"Consistent with our values and principles, the US Government will pursue new sanctions against select Belarus state-owned enterprises, in addition to the sanctions, travel restrictions, and asset freezes announced on January 31."
Statkevich and Uss were sentenced to prison for six and five-and-a-half years, respectively, for leading post-election protests against strongman Alexander Lukashenko, in the last of a series of political trials.
The European Union condemned Belarus for handing down "harsh" sentences against the two dissidents and said it was "unacceptable" to have political prisoners in Europe in the 21st century.
Tens of thousands of people joined protests in December against an election that handed Lukashenko a landslide victory and was condemned as unfair by European observers.
Prosecutors had demanded a record eight-year prison sentence for Statkevich, a 55-year-old lieutenant colonel in reserve whose social-democratic Narodnaya Gramada party was one of the first to oppose Lukashenko in 1996.
They alleged that he and Uss, a 40-year-old lawyer and businessman who has an infant son, led a "mob" against the government building during the December 19 protests, which ended in a fierce police crackdown with hundreds arrested.
Dozens, including most of the candidates challenging the strongman president of 17 years, were later charged with organizing mass riots and accused of staging a coup attempt.
The European Union has placed travel bans on and frozen the assets of some 188 individuals, including people from Lukashenko`s close circle and several judges that have issued sentences in the recent trials.