Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Belarus protesters sentenced

The Associated Press

MINSK, Belarus A Minsk court sentenced nearly two dozen protesters Monday to prison terms of 3 to 15 days for participating in an antigovernment demonstration inspired by the ongoing upheaval in Kyrgyzstan.

Nearly 1,000 people rallied outside the offices of President Aleksandr Lukashenko on Friday demanding the his resignation. Lukashenko has quashed dissent and opposition parties in the former Soviet republic.

Riot police officers eventually beat back the unauthorized rally, arresting 34 and leaving several seriously hurt.

The Minsk central district court convicted 20 protesters on charges, including organizing or participating in mass actions intended to violate social order. Rally organizers, who were scheduled to be sentenced later, could face up to three years in prison.

Opposition leaders and rights activists criticized the sentences.

"Repression will not stop the democratic process in Belarus," said the opposition leader Vyacheslav Sivchik, who was sentenced to 15 days in prison for his role in the rally.

"Authorities are turning on the judicial conveyor belt in order to try them for dissent," said Valentin Stefanovich, an opposition activist.

The rally came one day after the climax of public protests in Kyrgyzstan that forced Akayev to flee. The Central Asian country was the third former Soviet republic in the past 18 months - after Georgia and Ukraine - to see popular protests bring down long-entrenched leaders widely accused of corruption.

Belarus and the isolated Central Asian state of Turkmenistan are seen as the most repressive regimes in the former Soviet Union.

Lukashenko, who has ruled this nation of 10 million for a decade, came under strong international criticism last year for a referendum that scrapped presidential term limits and gave him the go-ahead to seek a third term in 2006.

Andrei Klimov, an opposition leader who organized the protests, said his goal was to help spark a revolution similar to those that have swept Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.