Belarus jails three over election protests

AFP - Belarus on Wednesday handed jail terms of up to four years to three activists accused of rioting offences for taking part in December's protests against the re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko.

A Minsk court jailed Alexander Molchanov for three years and Dmitry Novik for three-and-a-half years, an AFP correspondent in court said.

Alexander Otroshchenkov, a spokesman of opposition candidate Andrei Sannikov, received a four-year term.

Belarus on February 17 handed out the first jail sentence to a protestor over the December demonstrations, which were followed by a crackdown on the opposition that sparked an outcry in the West.

Thousands of people took to the streets of Misnk on December 19 to protest the results of presidential polls that gave Lukashenko a crushing victory but were criticised by international observers as flawed.

But baton-wielding security forces dispersed the protestors and arrested hundreds of people, several dozen of whom are now set to stand trial for public order offences and could face lengthy jail terms.

The trials of the most prominent accused, including Sannikov himself and fellow ex-presidential candidate Vladimir Nekliayev, have yet to take place.

The opposition crackdown -- which affected a whole swathe of the country's opposition activists and media -- triggered a new crisis between the West and the president who the United States once called Europe's last dictator.

Otroshchenkov vehemently denied the charges of using violence in a bid to enter government buildings, saying in his closing arguments that "I have done none of the things of which I am accused."

Both Novik and Molchanov admitted to pushing aside a wooden barrier that had been put around the government headquarters in Minsk.

Another opposition candidate, Ales Mikhalevich, said this week was repeatedly tortured after being imprisoned along with other opposition candidates.

Unidentified people wearing masks twisted prisoners' arms in handcuffs "until the joints started to crack," he said, and forced him to stand naked against the wall with his legs stretched into a near split.

His captors also refused to allow him to speak to his lawyer alone and deprived him of sleep, he said, calling the jail run by the KGB security services "a concentration camp in central Minsk".

Mikhalevich was imprisoned in December and released by the KGB earlier this month, after he signed an agreement to cooperate with the authorities, although he is still awaiting trial.

A total of five former candidates and 37 opposition activists are due to stand trial over the protests


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