Belarus sentences first election protester to four years in prison

The trial of more than 40 Belarusian opposition activists arrested amid protests against President Lukashenko ended as soon as it began, with the court handing down a four-year sentence for participating in mass unrest.

A Minsk court on Thursday sentenced opposition activist Vasily Parfenkov to four years in prison in the first trial of dozens following post-election protests.

The trial ended the same day it began, suggesting that the trials of the other 37 opposition activists and five former presidential candidates charged in connection with the protests may be similarly brief.

Parfenkov worked as campaign manager for the main opposition candidate Vladimir Neklyayev, who took on autocratic President Alexander Lukashenko in the December 19 election. Lukashenko has ruled the ex-Soviet republic for 16 years and was re-elected, but opposition and international observers say the poll involved fraud. Lukashenko closed the office of the OSCE European security body that monitored the election.

Arresting the opposition

Parfenkov was one of several hundred rounded up by police during the protests that took place that same night.

He was charged with participating in mass unrest and damaging state property, a crime which carries a jail sentence of up to 15 years.

No cameras were allowed in the courtroom, which was mostly filled with plain-clothes police officers. One opposition activist said via text message that prosecutors claim Parfenkov was responsible for some 3,400 euros ($4,600) in damage when a glass window of the parliament building was shattered during the protests.

Parfenkov, speaking from inside a metal cage, reportedly told the court that he took part in the election protests but did not cause any damage.

Opposition leader Nekliayev told news agency AFP that Parfenkov's arrest was "a political decision."

"With this sentence, the authorities showed they do not care about Western sanctions or calls."

Lawyer suspensions

As the trial began, the Justice Ministry suspended four defense lawyers working for some of the activists, citing a series of "blatant violations." The ministry said the defendants would be "provided with legal support."

One of the lawyers, Vladimir Tolstik, said he would appeal the decision. He represented Irina Khalip, a prominent opposition journalist who was recently transferred from custody to house arrest.

"I categorically disagree with the ministry's decision," Tolstik said. "I defended her, and there have been no complaints to me from her or her father."

Suspending an attorney's license effectively bars him or her from practicing law, according to rights activist Garry Pogonyailo, a former defense lawyer himself. Defense lawyers appointed by the court "defend only formally, and very rarely show any enthusiasm" because they receive such little pay from the state, he told news agency AFP.

The United States and European Union have imposed a number of new sanctions on Belarus for its post-election crackdown on opposition.

Author: Andrew Bowen (AFP, Reuters)

Editor: Andreas Illmer


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