Two Russians Fined Over Belarus Protest, Activists Cite 'Putin Factor'

MINSK -- Two Russians have been fined for taking part in December's postelection protests in Belarus, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reports.

Artyom Breus and Ivan Gaponov were found guilty on March 10 of participating in mass unrest in Minsk on December 19 and fined $3,000 each.

The sentences sparked suggestions by rights activists that Belarusian authorities made the punishments relatively mild in light of planned March 15 visit by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Moscow had called for the pair's release.

Four Belarusian activists who took part in the December protests were sentenced to jail terms of three to four years.

Gaponov and Breus were arrested on December 19 along with hundreds of Belarusian opposition activists who gathered with thousands of others in central Minsk to protest the official results of the presidential election, which declared incumbent President Alyaksandr Lukashenka the runaway winner.

A total of 42 men and women have officially been charged with organizing and/or participating in the "mass unrest in Minsk on December 19." They include five opposition presidential candidates, two of whom are still in detention.

Lyudmila Hraznova, chairwoman of the Rights Defending Alliance officially registered in Vilnius, Lithuania, told journalists after the March 10 trial that the verdicts were much more lenient than those pronounced earlier against Belarusian citizens who were tried in the same case. She attributed the discrepancy to Putin's visit.

Another Minsk-based rights activist, Valyantsin Stefanovich, likewise said the verdicts were directly connected to Putin's visit. He added that another defendant in the case, Belarusian citizen Dzmitry Myadzved, whose verdict was also pronounced on March 10, was sentenced to three years of restricted freedom and left the courtroom a free man only because if he had gotten a harsher sentence, it would have been too obvious that the preferential treatment shown to the two Russians was politically motivated.

The Russian Embassy in Minsk said last month that Belarusian secret services "exerted pressure" on Breus and Gaponov during the investigation into their cases.

Chilly relations between Lukashenka and Russia's leadership appeared to thaw slightly ahead of December's election in Belarus.


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