Belarus presses ahead for trial of arrested protesters


Belarus on Wednesday pushed ahead with plans to put on trial more than 30 political activists, including four opposition leaders, arrested in December during protests over the re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko.

The United States and its European allies have called on Lukashenko, who has been in power in the ex-Soviet republic since 1994, to free the detainees and appear poised to announce a new round of sanctions against him soon.

But Interior Minister Anatoly Kuleshov announced that documents setting out the case against those arrested would go before the courts from the beginning of February.

And he appeared to confirm they would be accused of instigating and taking part in mass unrest, a charge that carries up to 15 years imprisonment.

"The cases of specific people will go before the courts in the first days of February," Kuleshov told a news conference. "They are facing up to 15 years in jail."

It will then be down to the courts to fix a date for trial.

The detainees include four opposition leaders who challenged Lukashenko for the presidency. They are Vladimir Neklyayev, who heads the Tell the Truth movement, Andrei Sannikov, one of the leaders of the pro-democracy Charter 97 group, Nikolai Statkevich and Alexander Mikhalevich.

Neklyayev, 64, a poet, was beaten by security forces and later arrested from his hospital bed.


Lukashenko's opponents denounced his landslide election win on Dec. 19 as fraudulent and an international monitoring team said the count carried out at many election centres had been "bad or very bad".

Since then, the Belarussian authorities have accused Polish and German intelligence services of being behind a plot to overthrow Lukashenko by force and say several EU states financed the huge street protests against him on the night of Dec. 19.

Berlin and Warsaw have dismissed the accusations as absurd.

"It was a straightforward plot aimed at seizing power in the country, an armed coup...," Kuleshov said on Wednesday. "I did as much as possible for us to prevent an armed seizure of power," he added.

The EU is expected to announce fresh sanctions against Lukashenko at the end of this month, possibly re-instating a travel ban on him and his close associates. The bloc may also agree to oppose any future financial support for Minsk from the International Monetary Fund and block talks on a financial assistance programme for reforms.

Lukashenko has said that Belarus will reply to any sanctions with measures of its own, though he has not been specific about what form these would take.

The EU imposed sanctions on Belarus after a disputed poll in 2006 but suspended them in 2008 to encourage democratic reforms in the country of 10 million which is a transit route for Russian gas and oil products to the EU.


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