By Alexander Gelogayev in Minsk
An opposition activist appeared in court in Minsk yesterday 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 rounded up by riot police on 19 December, including opposition politicians who ran against Mr Lukashenko, admitted taking part in the rally but denied being involved in mass disorder.
The prosecution asked for Mr Parfenkov to be jailed for six years - two years short of the maximum for the charge of participating in mass unrest.
The US and the European Union have imposed sanctions on Belarus in response to the crackdown, which followed a presidential election that the opposition and international monitors said involved fraud.
They have called on Mr Lukashenko to free those detained. Belarus is an important transit route for Russian energy to Europe, and Moscow sees it as a buffer between Russia and Nato.
Mr Lukashenko, who has ruled with an autocratic style since 1994, has taken advantage of this to win aid and investment. The way in which the court deals with Mr Parfenkov could send a signal either of defiance or reconciliation by Mr Lukashenko, analysts say.