OSCE watchdog to monitor Belarus protester trials

VIENNA, March 7 (Reuters) - Europe's main security and rights watchdog said on Monday it would send observers to Belarus to monitor the trials of opposition political figures and protesters targeted in a post-election crackdown. Belarus started putting people on trial last month to the dismay of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which said freedom of assembly was a democratic right and criticised secrecy surrounding the first court proceedings.

The OSCE's democracy and rights arm ODIHR has now reached an agreement with Minsk to observe further trials, spokesman Jens Eschenbaecher said.

"A first group of four observers is expected to arrive on Wednesday to monitor the trials of Dzmitry Miadzvedz, as well as Russian citizens Ivan Gaponov and Artyom Breus," ODIHR said in a statement.

"The observers will assess the trials for their consistency with national law and fair trial standards as specified in OSCE documents and legally binding international covenants," it said, adding that it would publish a final report.

Belarus sentenced an opposition activist to four years in a top-security jail last month for his part in a rally against the re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko last December.

Vasily Parfenkov, 27, was the first to be tried of about 30 people being held in Belarus after a police crackdown on the Dec. 19 protest in the ex-Soviet republic that triggered Western sanctions against Lukashenko.

ODIHR has said the vote lacked independence, impartiality and transparency, with Belarus falling far short of its pledge to hold democratic elections and allow free media reporting.

OSCE election monitors called the vote count flawed and said police had been heavy-handed, remarks which prompted Belarus to deny the OSCE an extension its mission there and effectively expel it from the country.

Belarus is one of the Vienna-based OSCE's 56 member states. (Reporting by Sylvia Westall, editing by Paul Taylor)


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