Belarus imprisons two government critics

Minsk/Prague - A Belarusian judge on Thursday handed down harsh prison sentences to two government critics, while a third opposition figure was granted political asylum in the Czech Republic.

The judge condemned Eduard Lobov to four years in prison and an associate, Dmitry Dashkevich, to two years in prison for their participation in mass protests against the re-election of Belarusian President Aleksander Lukashenko on December 19.

Both men are members of Youth Front, a group dedicated to Lukashenko's removal from power.

Meanwhile, Ales Mikhalevich, also charged in connection with the protests, was granted political asylum, the Czech Foreign Ministry said.

Security forces used clubs and water cannon to break up the December 19 Minsk rally and arrested hundreds of people.

Mikhalevich evaded a wide-reaching crackdown on government opponents following the demonstrations by travelling to the European Union. Belarusian police have declared him a fugitive.

The EU imposed a travel ban on Lukashenko and more than 150 Belarusian officials. Lukashenko retaliated with a symbolic ban on travel to Belarus by a similar number of senior EU and US officials.

Some two dozen people still face charges of organizing violent, unsanctioned protests, which in the former Soviet republic is a criminal act carrying a maximum 15-year prison sentence.

Lukashenko has held a tight rein on Belarus since taking power in 1994. Human rights groups have said his re-election to a fourth term was undemocratic and probably the result of massive fraud.


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