By JAMES MARSON
Belarus sentenced an opposition activist to four years in jail Thursday for his part in mass unrest following the disputed re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko, defying Western calls for the authoritarian leader to free political prisoners.
Vasily Parfenkov is the first of 37 opposition figures, including five candidates who ran against Mr. Lukashenko, to stand trial; they were charged after thousands hit the streets of Minsk on Dec. 19 to protest a ballot that international monitors said was tainted by large-scale fraud.
The U.S. and the European Union earlier this month banned travel by and froze assets of Mr. Lukashenko and more than 150 of his associates after Minsk launched a violent crackdown against protesters. EU ministers said sanctions could only be lifted after political prisoners were released.
Analysts said the harsh sentence for Mr. Parfenkov was a riposte from Mr. Lukashenko to the sanctions and a signal that he didn't intend to back down to Western pressure.
"The authorities wanted to show who's the boss here and that no one can tell them what to do," said Alexander Milinkevych, who ran against Mr. Lukashenko in 2006.
Mr. Parfenkov, who worked for the campaign of opposition candidate Vladimir Neklyayev, will serve his sentence in a high-security prison where visits are limited. He was also ordered to pay around $4,700 to compensate for damage to the main government building in Minsk during the Dec. 19 protest.
Speaking from a metal cage in court, Mr. Parfenkov admitted taking part in the rally, but denied causing damage. The trial lasted barely seven hours.
Some six hundred protesters were detained after riot police violently broke up the protest. Belarussian authorities claim the attack on the government building was part of a Western-sponsored coup attempt. Activists say it was a provocation used as a pretext to send in police against the largely peaceful crowd.
With more trials set to follow, the Justice Ministry suspended four lawyers for opposition activists on Thursday for "gross violations"; they will be replaced by state-appointed attorneys.
The U.S. criticized the start of the court hearings. "The beginning of these trials is clearly another negative step on the part of the government," said Mark Toner, a State Department spokesman.
Mr. Lukashenko has ruled Belarus, a former Soviet state of some 10 million on Europe's eastern border with Russia, with an iron fist since 1994. He has for years played the West off against Russia to gain political and economic support desperately needed by the country's state-heavy economy.
Russia, once a staunch ally, has recently demonstrated its increasing impatience with Mr. Lukashenko and cut oil and gas subsidies.
The EU had sought to engage with the Belarussian leader, easing sanctions after political prisoners were freed following a similar suppression of the opposition in 2006.
Andrew Wilson, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the EU could extend measures against Belarus if the crackdown continues. "The danger for Lukashenko is that he may miscalculate and push the EU" to implement economic sanctions, he said.