BELARUS HAS drawn sharp criticism from the United States and human rights groups for sentencing an opposition activist to four years in jail for taking part in an anti-government rally.
Vasily Parfenkov (27) was sent to a maximum security prison for joining what the judge called a "lawless mob" that allegedly tried to break into a government building during protests against the re-election of authoritarian president Alexander Lukashenko in December.
Parfenkov - who campaigned for an opposition candidate in the election - was the first of more than 40 people who are due to stand trial for taking part in the huge march, which was broken up in violent fashion by riot police who arrested hundreds of those involved.
Those due in court include at least three of the men who ran against Mr Lukashenko in the ballot, which critics at home and abroad said was blatantly rigged in favour of the former collective farm boss who has crushed free media and persecuted many opponents during almost 17 years in power.
Mr Lukashenko has accused Germany and Poland of conspiring with his domestic enemies to topple him in a coup. But opposition activists say the trouble outside government buildings during the rally was instigated by provocateurs to give the regime a pretext for its crackdown.
"I took part in a rally and march. But I am not guilty of destroying property or armed resistance," Parfenkov told the closed-door trial, which went ahead despite complaints from the EU and US and their imposition of a travel ban on Mr Lukashenko and many key allies.
"If they are going to deal as harshly as this with a simple activist then it has to be assumed that the next sentences of those who are accused of organising unrest will be even harsher," said Ales Belyatski of the Vesna 96 human rights website. "It is a bad signal above all for the former presidential candidates."
Washington called for the trials to be halted and opposition activists released.
"The beginning of these trials is clearly another negative step on the part of the government," said US state department spokesman Mark Toner.
Europe's main rights and democracy watchdog, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, complained about the trial being held behind closed doors and about a number of defence lawyers for activists abruptly having their licences revoked.