MINSK (Reuters) - An opposition activist appeared in court in Minsk on Thursday in the first trial of about 30 people held after a crackdown on protests against President Alexander Lukashenko's re-election which triggered Western condemnation. Media sources said the court began hearing the case of Vasily Parfenkov, one of several hundred people who were initially rounded up in the December 19 crackdown and a subsequent sweep of opposition and dissident homes and offices. Parfenkov, whom the pro-democracy organisation Freedom House said was campaign manager for the main opposition candidate Vladimir Neklyayev, faces a charge of participating in mass unrest which carries a maximum sentence of eight years in jail. Parfenkov chatted with lawyers through the bars of his metal cage inside the Frunze district court before the trial opened. It was not clear how long the trial might last. The 30 or so people who are still being held and are likely to stand trial include several opposition candidates who ran against Lukashenko in what they and international monitors said was a fraudulently-conducted vote. The United States and the European Union have imposed sanctions on the ex-Soviet republic in response to the crackdown. They have called on Lukashenko, in power since 1994, to free those detained. The clampdown on the Minsk rally, followed by police action against opposition and dissident groups, ended prospects of a thaw between Lukashenko and the West which had held out financial aid for Belarus if democratic rights improved. Belarus is an important transit route for Russian energy to Europe while Moscow sees it as a buffer between it and NATO. Lukashenko has taken advantage of this to win pledges of aid and investment from both sides needed to keep the economy afloat.
Under renewed Western sanctions, Lukashenko and more than 150 officials, including some seen as involved in the post-election clampdown, will be barred from visiting the 27 EU states. A list of people affected by an EU asset freeze was also extended.
The way in which the court deals with Parfenkov will set the tone for trials that follow and could send a political signal of either defiance or reconciliation by Lukashenko, analysts say.
Presidential candidates who are still being held include Andrei Sannikov of the "For the European Belarus" movement.
Neklyayev, a 64-year-old poet and head of the "Tell the Truth" movement, was provisionally released on January 29 but is being held under house arrest and could still be tried.
A statement by the Washington-based Freedom House condemned the start of the protesters' trials and quoted family members and human rights groups as saying that defendants had had little access to legal counsel and had been beaten while in custody.
Freedom House executive director David Kramer was quoted as condemning also the continued harassment and arrests of opposition and civil society figures, as well as journalists.
"They reflect an insecure, paranoid leader who senses his time is running out," Kramer said.
Directly after the crackdown in December, Lukashenko, who has run the country with an autocratic style for 16 years, ruled out any "revolution" taking place in Belarus and said there would be no more experiments with "senseless democracy."
(Writing by Richard Balmforth; Editing by Jon Boyle)