Belarus tries four accused of spying for Poland

MINSK, Sept 4 ( - Four Belarussian army officers went on trial behind closed doors in the ex-Soviet state on Tuesday charged with spying for Poland, a European Union member viewed with suspicion by President Alexander Lukashenko.

The accused could, in theory, face the death penalty under Belarussian law if convicted of espionage and treason, though there are no known instances of the penalty having been applied. A fifth Russian officer is to face charges in his home country.

"Four people are to appear before the court and each is charged with gathering and transferring to a foreign state data sought by foreign intelligence," a court representative said before the hearing opened.

"One of the accused is also accused of organising spying activity by a foreign national."

The Belarussians were detained early this year by the country's security service, still known by its Soviet-era name, the KGB. But their detention was made public only in July, when the charges were announced.

Security officials say the accused were told by the Polish intelligence service to provide secret information on the operations of the Belarussian armed forces and the country's joint air defence system with Russia.

Belarussian media said they were accused of making copies of classified documents and had intended to conceal them in special devices to take them across the country's borders and hand them to Polish intelligence.

Belarussian television in July showed two of the accused confessing their guilt.

Within days of the disclosure of the arrests, Lukashenko dismissed KGB head Stepan Sukhorenko and accused the intelligence services of unprofessional activity.

Belarus and Poland, a close US ally, have long had uneasy relations over Lukashenko's allegations that the 400,000-strong Polish minority foments unrest in the country of 10 million.

In 2005, Belarussian riot police seized the Polish community's offices in the western city of Grodno, ousted its leaders and forced the election of more compliant executives.

That incident prompted each country to expel the other's diplomats. Other incidents of alleged spying or interference have boosted tension, with Belarussian officials periodically barring entry to Polish officials.

Lukashenko, popular at home, is accused in the West of crushing fundamental rights, closing down independent media and systematically rigging elections, including his own re-election last year to a third term. The United States and EU have barred entry to him and dozens of top officials.



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