(Reuters) - Belarus, in a speedy one-day trial, Thursday sentenced an opposition activist to four years in a top-security jail for his part in a rally against the re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko last December.
Vasily Parfenkov, 27, was the first to be tried of about 30 people being held after a police crackdown on the December 19 protest in the ex-Soviet republic that has triggered Western sanctions against Lukashenko.
Parfenkov, while acknowledging he took part in the protest, denied involvement in an attack on a government building during the rally which authorities have used to substantiate claims of an attempted coup against Lukashenko, in power since 1994.
Parfenkov was accused of taking part in mass disorder relating to the huge protest on Minsk's Independence Square on the night of December 19 and the prosecution had sought a sentence of six years.
But analysts said the four years handed down was still a heavy sentence and boded ill for four presidential candidates who may face a heavier charge of organizing mass unrest.
"If they are going to deal as harshly as this with a simple activist (like Parfenkov) then it has to be assumed that the next sentences of those who are accused of organizing unrest will be even harsher," Ales Belyatski, head of the human rights Vesna (Spring) 96 website, told Reuters.
"It is a bad signal above all for the former presidential candidates," he said. The harshness of the sentence could be seen as a signal of defiance by Lukashenko, other analysts said.
The police crackdown triggered fresh Western sanctions against Lukashenko, who has ruled the ex-Soviet republic for 16 years and whose re-election was denounced as fraudulent by the opposition and international monitors.
The United States and the European Union, who have called for protesters to be freed, have imposed restrictions on Lukashenko including a travel ban on him and 150 officials.
Three out of the nine candidates who ran against Lukashenko are still being held, including Andrei Sannikov of the "For a European Belarus" movement.
A fourth, Vladimir Neklyayev, a 64-year-old poet and head of the "Tell the Truth" movement for whom Parfenkov worked, is under house arrest, but may go on trial.
"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.
Judge Olga Komar, handing down sentence, disregarded Parfenkov's plea and said he had been part of "lawless mob" which had tried to break into an official government building.
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 sentence was the harshest in Belarus for a politically-related offence since presidential candidate Alexander Kozulin was sentenced to 5 1/2 years in prison in 2006. He was released early in 2007.
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."
(Writing by Richard Balmforth; editing by Ralph Boulton)