Suspended jail terms for Belarus candidates

Vladimir Nekliayev and Vitaly Rymashevsky were convicted of public order offences.

Minsk: Belarus handed two-year suspended jail terms to two former presidential candidates on Friday, wrapping up the trials of dozens of opposition leaders amid mounting international outrage.

Vladimir Nekliayev and Vitaly Rymashevsky were convicted of public order offences during post-election protests. Rymashevsky has already said he will appeal.

Hearings for two other candidates, Nikolai Statkevich and Dmitry Uss, who face long jail terms for alleged mass riots last December, were unexpectedly cancelled.

Nekliayev, Rymashevsky and four other opposition activists were found guilty of "actions disrupting social order", Judge Zhanna Lukovskaya said, a correspondent reported from the courtroom.

Police jailed hundreds of people last year after breaking up a crowd of tens of thousands protesting Lukashenko`s re-election and demanding a fair vote.

The courts charged dozens of protesters, including most of the candidates who had challenged the re-election of the president, with having organised riots.

Lukashenko himself accused prominent opposition figure Andrei Sannikov and his journalist wife Irina Khalip of having plotted to overthrow him.

On Saturday, a court jailed Sannikov for five years after convicting him of having organised the post-election protests, provoking an international outcry. His wife received a two-year suspended sentence on Monday.

The crackdown was denounced by both Europe and the United States and led to a new wave of Western sanctions against the isolated ex-Soviet state.

"What I plan to do first is fight for freedom of innocent people," Nekliayev said as he was greeted by people with flowers outside the courtroom.

Nekliayev, a 64-year-old poet and the oldest person to be prosecuted over the protest, was severely beaten on election day and held in a jail operated by the KGB security service despite his poor health.

He was put under house arrest in late January and for the past four months kept in total isolation and under the constant watch of KGB agents.

Rymashevsky, 36, is one of the founders of the Belarussian Christian-democratic party.

"I plan to appeal, will be taking part in other political campaigns and will become the president," Rymashevsky said. "I came out of this stronger and more experienced."

Three members of their campaigns received the same sentences, while youth opposition activist Anastasia Polozhanko received a one-year suspended sentence.

Another Minsk court unexpectedly cancelled a hearing against former presidential candidates Statkevich and Uss and five other protesters.

A note posted on the courtroom`s door said it was "due to the illness of the judge". No new date has been announced.

Polish, French and German foreign ministers said on Friday that more targeted economic sanctions against Belarus would be examined at a meeting of EU foreign ministers on Monday.

"We will increase the pressure on the Belarus regime as long as it does not change its politics," said Poland`s top diplomat Radoslaw Sikorski.

Extended sanctions threaten to further destabilise Belarus as it attempts to rescue its shaky economy by securing a multibillion-dollar bailout loan from Russia.

Bureau Report