By Jan Cienski in Warsaw
Belarus continued its crackdown on opponents of the authoritarian regime on Thursday, with two Russians accused of taking part in last year’s post-election protests receiving fines, while a Belarusian protester was sentenced to a three-year suspended prison term.
The sentences are unlikely to help Belarus at a time when the European Union is contemplating levying economic sanctions against the former Soviet republic.
The regime of Alexander Lukashenko, Belarusian president for the past 16 years and described as “Europe’s last dictator”, has cracked down hard on political opponents following disputed presidential elections on December 19 that international observers said did not meet international standards. Although Mr Lukashenko claimed victory with almost 80 per cent of the vote, opposition leaders said he failed to win outright and that a second round of voting should have been held.
Thousands of protesters took to the streets after polls closed. Police broke up the demonstration and hundreds of people, including seven presidential candidates, were arrested. Many of those detained received 15-day prison sentences but more than 40 people, including some presidential candidates, face much more severe penalties.
Thursday’s trial was monitored by observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, who were not present at the sentencing earlier this month of three other Belarusian activists, one of whom was given four years in a maximum-security prison, while two others were given three years of hard labour.
Russia, Belarus’s ally, had pressed the government over the case of Ivan Gaponov and Artem Breus, who had faced sentences of as long as eight years in prison. Instead, they each received a fine of about $3,500, although both said they had been threatened with violence by the authorities and planned to appeal, according to Belsat, an independent television network.
The third defendant, Dzmitry Myadzvedz, 51, was accused of attacking policemen during the protests. He insisted he was innocent but received a suspended sentence.
The regime’s harsh reaction has been widely condemned. Senior government officials face EU and US travel bans, and an international conference recently agreed to increase aid flowing to Belarusian democracy groups.
The crackdown has also derailed Mr Lukashenko’s previous ability to manoeuvre between Russia and the EU – a policy that enabled him to retain a measure of independence while extracting benefits from both parties.
Now he has little alternative outside of Russia, which supplies the oil and gas that is crucial to the economy and to Mr Lukashenko’s hold on power.
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