Minsk courts to rule on some 20 activists detained at opposition rally

MINSK, Belarus (AP) - Three Minsk courts were set to issue verdicts Monday on some 20 activists charged with participating in unauthorized rallies, as tensions continue to spiral in Belarus ahead of next Sunday's closely watched presidential elections.

The activists, who include six Ukrainians, were detained late Sunday night as the opposition's main candidate Alexander Milinkevich met with voters at an event authorities called illegal.

The incident was the latest in the series of detentions and arrests of opposition figures in the run-up to the vote, in which authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko is widely expected win a third term. Opposition groups have warned of election fraud and called for peaceful protests on election day.

Minsk's Leninsky court earlier Monday sentenced two Belarusian activists to eight and 15 days in prison respectively and slapped a third with a 930,000-ruble ($450) fine, said Tatyana Protko, head of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, the country's leading human rights group.

"The court hearings are taking place without lawyers and look more like acts of frightening and intimidation," Protko said.

Other activists, including 34-year-old Alexander Prismakov, were still awaiting verdicts.

"People in plainclothes grabbed me on the subway and started beating me up," Prismakov told the Associated Press.

Belarus' top prosecutor, Pyotr Miklashevich, accused the opposition of holding unauthorized meetings and warned that "each act violating the law would be decisively suppressed by law enforcement bodies."

The opposition says they are being denied permission to use various premises, and authorities then deem their outdoor meetings illegal.

The Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, vowed that it would counter alleged attempts by foreign citizens to "destabilize the situation in the country" under the guise of election monitoring.

Lukashenko, branded by Western nations as "Europe's last dictator" has accused Western countries of fostering popular uprisings like the ones that brought opposition rulers to power in ex-Soviet Georgia and Ukraine.