Court jails Belarus protesters as new rallies loom

By Andrei Makhovsky

MINSK (Reuters) - Belarussian courts on Monday jailed for up to 15 days dozens of mostly young protesters detained when police broke up rallies against a presidential election judged unfair by the West.

The European Union, accused by Minsk of trying to foment revolution, urged the release of the protesters while Belarussian customs officers barred a Polish diplomat from entering the country.

Opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich dismissed the trials as a farce and said his supporters would campaign nationwide to win more public backing and organise bigger protests.

The opposition rallied up to 10,000 supporters for protests in the past week, demonstrations unmatched in recent years in a country where President Alexander Lukashenko rules with a Soviet-style authoritarian hand.

But the protests against his re-election with a landslide 83 percent a week ago came to an abrupt halt on Saturday when police broke up a march and detained dozens of demonstrators.

At the Leninsky District Court on Minsk's outskirts, a judge read out verdicts in a monotone, sentencing six young women to seven days in jail each in less than 30 minutes.

No defence lawyers were present and the verdicts for taking part in an unauthorised rally were rubberstamped irrespective of whether the accused pleaded guilty or not.

"This is a sheer farce, this is not a real trial," said Milinkevich, whose son was given a 15-day sentence by another court, according to a human rights group.

"The sentences must have been pre-written ... The judge was virtually ashamed to raise his eyes," he told Reuters.


Another court sentenced a former Polish ambassador to Belarus, Mariusz Maszkiewicz, to 15 days in jail, while Polish journalism trainee Weronika Samolinska was jailed for 10 days.

Meanwhile on Belarus' border with Poland, Ianusz Dabrowski, Polish consul in the western city of Grodno, was barred from entering the country when he refused to let customs officers search his car.

"As I understand it, what is happening is, of course, connected to the situation in Belarus," he told Reuters.

Among those detained at the weekend was Alexander Kozulin, an opposition presidential challenger. Police have declined to say where Kozulin is being held, but prosecutors said they would announce charges against him later on Monday.

A local human rights body, Vyasna, said 114 protesters had been sentenced to up to 15 days on public order offences.

The activists were unbowed.

"This is sheer lawlessness," said Yuri, 42, after his 19-year-old daughter was jailed. "All my friends say I must be proud of Nastya, and I really am."

Police said they only used force after Saturday's rally turned violent. They have not revealed the number of detained but the opposition said around 100 protesters were being held.

Milinkevich pledged to call new rallies.

"We need five or 10 times more protesters," he told Reuters. "We need a nationwide information campaign ... Half the country does not know what is really going on in Minsk."

The EU urged the countries bordering Belarus to speak to Minsk with one voice.

"We urge also our international partners and, in particular, the neighbours of Belarus to really follow this same approach," said External Affairs Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner.

But Russia, which views Belarus as an ally and rapidly congratulated Lukashenko after the election, looked unlikely to put pressure on its neighbour.Court jails Belarus protesters as new rallies loom