MINSK, Belarus - Fifteen opposition activists were sentenced to short jail terms Monday - the latest crackdown coming less than a week before this country's closely watched presidential election.
Three Minsk courts sentenced the activists to up to 15 days for participating in unauthorized rallies.
The activists were detained late Sunday night as main opposition candidate Alexander Milinkevich met with voters at an event that authorities labeled illegal, embassy officials and rights groups said.
Authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko is widely expected to win a third term Sunday in this ex-Soviet republic. Opposition groups have warned of election fraud and called for peaceful protests on election day.
Twelve Belarusian activists were fined or sentenced Monday to terms ranging from eight to 15 days in prison, a Milinkevich aide said. Three Ukrainian activists were sentenced to 10 days in prison, according to the Vyasna rights group.
The government and opposition described the people arrested as activists. The U.S. State Department said Monday that authorities had arrested 12 aides to Milinkevich, including senior campaign officials Vintsuk Vyachorka and Anatoly Lebedko.
"The United States calls again on the Belarusian government to cease repression of political campaigns and civil society groups, and to respect the rights of Belarusian citizens," department spokesman Tom Casey said in a statement.
Tatyana Protko, head of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, the country's leading human rights group, said the court hearings were "taking place without lawyers and look more like acts of frightening and intimidation."
Milinkevich attempted to visit the activists in the detention center but was not allowed to enter.
"It is regretful that we have such cynical authorities," he said.
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."
Opposition leaders say 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 what it called attempts by foreign citizens to "destabilize the situation in the country" under the guise of election monitoring.
Lukashenko, branded "Europe's last dictator" by Western nations, has accused Western countries of fostering a popular uprising like those that brought opposition rulers to power in ex-Soviet Georgia and Ukraine.
Lukashenko, who enjoys strong Kremlin backing, thanked Russia Monday for its support and repeated reassurances that the situation in the country would not be destabilized.
Polling stations were set to open Tuesday for early voting.
The opposition contends that early voting allows for multiple voting and ballot-stuffing at unguarded and unmonitored polling stations.