Minsk: Belarus on Sunday faced an international outcry after jailing the main rival of autocratic President Alexander Lukashenko for five years in a process denounced by the opposition as a political show trial.
A Minsk court on Saturday found Andrei Sannikov guilty of organising mass protests after Lukashenko's landslide election victory in December 19 polls which were condemned by Western observers as flawed.
In highly emotional scenes, Sannikov, 57, shouted "look after my loved ones" before being taken away. His son Danik celebrates his fourth birthday Sunday while his wife Irina Khalip hears her verdict Monday on similar charges.
Four other younger defendants -- the youngest just 19 -- were also jailed for up to three-and-a-half years in the trial, just the latest against dozens of opposition activists charged over the election protests.
Supporters in the court shouted "Freedom!" and "Shame on the authorities!" while others cried. Sannikov's lawyer Marina Kovalevskaya said the defence would appeal the verdict.
Western countries rapidly condemned the verdict as politically motivated, with the United States saying it considered Sannikov and other opposition figures arrested after the elections to be "political prisoners."
Britain called the trial "a new low for the rule of law in Belarus" while Germany's Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle denounced the court's verdict as "the political will of Lukashenko".
An ex-collective farm boss who has ruled Belarus for almost 17 years, Lukashenko was once accused by the United States of running Europe's last dictatorship and the crackdown has ended any hopes of a rapprochement with the West.
European Union foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton also condemned the ruling and warned of the "readiness of the EU to consider further targeted restrictive measures in all areas of cooperation."
The Belarussian foreign ministry has yet to give any reaction to the criticism.
Sannikov polled the most votes of the nine opposition candidates in the election with 2.43 percent, according to official results, although his supporters insist his true figure was far higher.
He was one of hundreds of Belarussians detained in a massive security sweep by police after tens of thousands surged into the streets to protest on the night of the election. Dozens still remain in jail.
Five of the opposition candidates face prison terms over their protests and Sannikov was the first to receive a verdict.
In a tragic family drama that won global attention, his journalist wife Irina Khalip was also arrested in the protests and the authorities then sought to take custody of their son Danik.
Khalip was eventually released and allowed to keep the child but put under house arrest in her apartment in the company of two agents from the security service, still known as the KGB in Belarus.
Prosecutors have requested a two year suspended sentence for her and she is forbidden from communicating with her husband.
"The Belarussian judicial system is bulldozing our family," said Sannikov's mother Alla, 78.
"They've given Danik a present -- they've taken his father. This is absurd, we have no justice, just one person who determines the fate of others as he wishes."
Sannikov served as a deputy foreign minister but then resigned in protest at the president's behaviour in 1996 and founded the opposition Charter 97 rights movement and news website.
The youngest defendant at the trial, Ilya Vasilyevich, 19, was sentenced to three years in prison. Vladimir Ermenek, 20, was also jailed for three years and Oleg Gnedchik, 25, for three-and-half years
Fyodor Mirzoyanov, 20, was given a three year sentence. His tearful mother Lyudmila was not even allowed into the courtroom to say goodbye to her son.
Twenty-seven people have now been convicted in post-election trials, of whom 22 were given jail terms.
The trials have coincided with an unprecedented economic crisis triggered by Lukashenko's Soviet-style management that has prompted an effective 50 percent currency devaluation and warnings that even worse is to come.
First Published: Sunday, May 15, 2011, 17:50