VIENNA (Reuters) - Europe's main rights and security watchdog voiced strong concern over the start of legal action against opposition protesters in Belarus and criticised holding parts of the first trial behind closed doors.
Belarus sentenced an opposition activist to four years in a top-security jail Thursday for his part in a rally against the re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko last December.
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which was forced to close its Belarus office after criticising the election conduct and crackdown, said the trials against protesters were a worrying development.
"I would like to stress that freedom of assembly is a fundamental democratic right," OSCE Chairperson-in-Office Audronius Azubalis said in a statement Thursday.
"Of particular concern is that parts of the first trial were held in camera. This is unacceptable. I am also concerned about reports of a number of defence lawyers having their licenses revoked."
Azubalis, who is also Lithuania's foreign minister, said the OSCE needed to monitor such trials in the future to provide an independent assessment to its 56 member states.
Vasily Parfenkov, 27, was the first to be tried of about 30 people being held in Belarus after a police crackdown on the December 19 protest in the ex-Soviet republic that triggered Western sanctions against Lukashenko.
While acknowledging he took part in the protest, Parfenkov 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. Azubalis said that Belarus, like all other member states, had promised at an OSCE summit in December to respect human rights, democracy, and free and fair elections.
He also reiterated an OSCE call on Belarus to stop harassing the media and criticised Minsk for failing to let his media freedom envoy visit the country.
The OSCE's democratic and human rights arm will publish a report on the December 19 election next week, he said.
(Reporting by Sylvia Westall; Editing by Angus MacSwan)