Belarus court sentences U.S. lawyer to three years

By Andrei Makhovsky

MINSK (Reuters) - A court in Belarus jailed a U.S. lawyer for three years on Monday on charges of industrial espionage and carrying forged documents, a verdict certain to plunge relations between the two countries deeper into crisis.

The trial of New York-based lawyer Emmanuel Zeltser, a specialist in Russian law and organized crime, was held behind closed doors. The verdict was announced by the defendant's lawyer, Dmitry Goryachko.

"My position is that he did not commit these crimes," Goryachko told Reuters. "We will, of course, be making an appeal."

Zeltser's secretary, Vladlena Bruskova, was jailed for a year.

The U.S. State Department has repeatedly expressed concern over his arrest and sought his release on grounds of ill health.

On Monday, the U.S. embassy said it could not judge whether the trial met international standards as it had not been present. It repeated calls to be granted access to Zeltser.

"We have not been granted consular access to him for more than two months," it said. "We ... call upon the Belarsussian authorities to provide him with all the medication which has been prescribed to him."

Zeltser was detained in March on his arrival in Belarus, where he was to represent the interests of Josef Kay, a relative of the late Georgian businessman Badri Patarkatsishvili.


His detention came at the height of a diplomatic row pitting Minsk against Washington. Belarus, accused by Western countries of crushing fundamental human rights, asked the U.S. ambassador to leave in March after saying Washington had toughened sanctions against its oil producer, Belneftekhim.

Authorities also twice demanded cuts in the size of the U.S. embassy staff, now numbering only five diplomats.

President Alexander Lukashenko, accused of hounding opponents, muzzling the media and rigging his re-election, is barred from the United States and the 27-nation European Union.

Lukashenko, broadly popular in Belarus, dismisses U.S. criticism as interference in his country's affairs. But since quarrelling with Russia last year over energy prices, he has sought better relations with the West, particularly the EU, ahead of a September parliamentary election.

Zeltser was initially charged with using forged documents. Other accusations were added later.

Goryachko repeated his call for authorities to allow Zeltser to use U.S.-produced medicines to treat a back ailment as Belarussian drugs had proved ineffective.

"Both he and his American doctors describe his state as very serious and I am prepared to believe their assessment," Goryachko said.

"Perhaps now they will allow him to use the medicines he needs and maybe they will have the required effect."

Drug-related charges against Zeltser made after his arrest, were dropped. Belarus's security service, still known by its Soviet-era KGB initials, had said more than 100 tablets found to be narcotics had been discovered on Zeltser.

(Writing by Ron Popeski, editing by Myra MacDonald)



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