By Alexander Gelogayev
(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.
Vasily Parfenkov, one of several hundred people initially rounded up by riot police on Dec. 19 including opposition politicians who ran against Lukashenko, admitted taking part in the rally but denied being involved in mass unrest.
The United States and the European Union have imposed sanctions on the ex-Soviet republic in response to the crackdown, which followed a presidential election that the opposition and international monitors said involved fraud.
They have called on Lukashenko to free those detained.
Belarus is an important transit route for Russian energy to Europe while Moscow sees it as a buffer between it and NATO.
Lukashenko, who has ruled with an autocratic style since 1994, has taken advantage of this to win pledges of aid and investment from both sides needed to keep the economy afloat.
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.
The charge against Parfenkov -- participating in mass unrest -- carries a maximum sentence of eight years in jail.
"I took part in a rally and march. But I am not guilty of destroying property or armed resistance," Parfenkov, speaking from inside a metal cage, told the court.
Parfenkov, 27, was at the time campaign manager for the main opposition candidate Vladimir Neklyayev, who was badly beaten on Dec. 19. It was not clear how long Parfenkov's trial might last.
Some members of the crowd attacked a government building on Minsk's Independence Square on Dec. 19, breaking a door and glass windows. Authorities have since used television footage of the incident to substantiate claims of a Western-inspired coup attempt against Lukashenko.
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.
Directly after the December arrests, Lukashenko ruled out any "revolution" taking place in Belarus and said there would be no more experiments with "senseless democracy".
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.
Presidential candidates who are still being held include Andrei Sannikov of the "For a European Belarus" movement.
Neklyayev, a 64-year-old poet and head of the "Tell the Truth" movement, was provisionally released on Jan. 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 defendants had had little access to legal counsel and had been beaten while in custody.
Freedom House executive director David Kramer was also quoted condemning 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.
Russia has also found itself at odds with Belarus over two Russians among those arrested in Minsk. A statement by the Russian embassy in Minsk, issued on the Russian foreign ministry web site, said it fully supported the two Russians, who deny taking an active role in the Dec. 19 rally.
(Writing by Richard Balmforth; editing by Philippa Fletcher)