A court in Minsk has jailed two opposition activists for hooliganism in a trial widely seen as a move to sideline the pair during the December 19 presidential election and its violent aftermath.
Zmitser Dashkevich, the leader of the unregistered Youth Front, and Eduard Lobau, another prominent member of the opposition group, were given prison sentences of two and four years, respectively.
The activists were arrested one day before the vote on charges of assaulting two passersby in Minsk.
Relatives hugged and shed tears as the judge pronounced the verdict.
Dashkevich's father, Vyachaslau, said his son was a pacifist who never got into fights.
"Making my son a political prisoner wasn't enough for them, they had to make him a criminal too," he told RFE/RL today outside the court. "But he wouldn't hurt a fly, he is a deeply religious person."
Critics say the charges against Dashkevich and Lobau are bogus and accuse the authorities of framing the activists to prevent them from stirring up dissent following the election, which gave incumbent Alyaksandr Lukashenka a landslide victory with almost 80 percent of the vote.
Lukashenka's reelection, deemed flawed by international monitors, sparked mass street protests that were brutally repressed.
Hundreds of protesters were detained and a number remain in prison, including former presidential candidates Andrey Sannikau and Mikalay Statkevich. A third former candidate, Uladzimer Nyaklyaeu, is under house arrest.
More than 40 protesters have been charged with instigating mass disorder and several have already been jailed for up to four years.
Although Dashkevich and Lobau were detained before the protests, rights campaigner Valentin Stefanovich has no doubt their arrest and subsequent trial are directly related to the disputed election.
"They tried to detain Dashkevich several times before December 19," Stefanovich says. "The authorities clearly used different methods to isolate him as a preventive measure. It was no coincidence and our secret services are behind all this."
He adds that "this a political case" and the authorities were trying "to prevent him and other Youth Front activists from taking part in the events of December 19."
Another rights campaigner, Lyudmila Gryaznova, says the case is a warning to all dissident-minded Belarusians.
"This is not a verdict, this is not a court, this is not justice," she says. "This is a political order. It is aimed at intimidating society, civil society and ordinary citizens."
Meanwhile, another man who unsuccessfully ran against Lukashenka in the December 19 election has been granted political asylum in the Czech Republic.
Ales Mikhalevich, who was released from prison on bail following the postelection protests, fled Belarus earlier this month.
He claims he was beaten, stripped naked, tortured, and hung by his hands while in a KGB jail he likened to a concentration camp.
written by Claire Bigg, with reporting from RFE/RL's Belarus Service
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