WASHINGTON (AFP) - The United States on Thursday criticized the start of trials of those who took part in anti-government protests in Belarus as another "negative step" by the government there.
"The United States deeply regrets that the government of Belarus has begun the first trial of those detained for their involvement in the December 19th protest," Mark Toner, a State Department spokesman, told reporters.
He reiterated previous US and international calls for the "immediate unconditional release of all detainees... a halt to the crackdown on civil society, independent media and the political opposition.
"The beginning of these trials is clearly another negative step on the part of the government," Toner said.
Five former presidential candidates along with 37 other leading opposition activists have been charged with inciting mass riots after tens of thousands protested the December 19 re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko.
In Minsk on Thursday, a Belarussian court on Thursday slapped a four-year jail sentence on opposition member 28-year-old Vasily Parfenkov who took part in the demonstrations.
In the first of several upcoming hearings, he was convicted of breaking a window of the Belarussian parliament building, a member of the Vesna (Spring) rights organization who was present in court told AFP.
The offense can be classified under Belarussian law as "organizing mass disturbances," a crime that carries a jail sentence of up to 15 years.