Belarus opposition member jailed

An opposition leader in Belarus has been jailed for two weeks for organising an unauthorised rally, a fortnight ahead of the elections.

The sentence means Vintsuk Vyachorka will be unable to take further part in campaigning for the polls on 19 March.

He had played a key role in the campaign for Alexander Milinkevich, one of three opposition candidates.

They are standing against President Alexander Lukashenko who is seeking a third term in office.

Last week, another of the opposition candidates, Social Democratic Party leader Alexander Kozulin, was briefly detained by police after trying to get into a conference being addressed by Mr Lukashenko.

There were stand-offs with police as thousands of Milinkevich supporters held a rally in Minsk at the same time. The authorities had said the rally was illegal.

Mr Vyachorka and two others were sentenced to 15 days on charges of organising and participating in unauthorised rallies.

Before the trial in Minsk, he said: "It is a political trial.

"I am guilty of nothing. The election law permits representatives of a candidate running for election to organise meetings with voters."


Mr Milinkevich also condemned the sentences.

"The authorities want to behead the opposition," he said. "They are not even attempting to create the illusion of an honest election."

But Belarus' senior election official dismissed opposition claims, saying the election campaign was being conducted in accordance with the law.

"They are not ... being punished by the [presidential] administration - they are people who provoke those conflicts," Lidiya Yermoshina told the Associated Press news agency.

International observers will be monitoring the elections, but many of Mr Lukashenko's political opponents believe the polls will not be free or fair.

Mr Lukashenko has been criticised for his hold over Belarus. Washington has called him "Europe's last dictator".