Belarus defies Moscow, puts two Russians on trial


Belarus has put on trial two Russians for taking part in street protests during the re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko in December, defying Moscow which has called for their release.

Artyom Breus and Ivan Gaponov pleaded not guilty to a charge of taking part in mass disturbances which carries a maximum of eight years in prison. They denied having links with the Belarussian opposition.

Yesterday's hearing quickly degenerated into confusion when two of the witness police officers gave contradictory evidence and at one stage mixed up the two defendants, an AFP correspondent reported from court.

Breus also testified to being badly beaten by riot police during the protest and losing consciousness while being dragged across a central square.

The hearing was later adjourned until March 1 after the state prosecutor said new charges would be filed.

The two men were among several hundred people who were rounded up in a police crackdown on December 19 on an opposition rally against Lukashenko, the day he was re-elected for a fourth term in power.

The opposition says the vote was rigged to ensure the continuing grip on power of Lukashenko, who has ruled the former Soviet republic since 1994.

On February 17, Vasily Parfenkov, a Belarussian who was campaign manager for one of the candidates who ran against Lukashenko, became the first of more than 30 people to be tried for taking part in the disturbances. He was convicted and sentenced to four years in prison.

The crackdown sparked fresh sanctions by the US and the European Union against Lukashenko, including a travel ban on him and top Belarussian officials.

Russia, which provides Belarus with vital oil supplies for its refineries, says Breus and Gaponov were bystanders during the disturbances and should be released.

The state prosecutor later said he would file new charges against the two but provided no details. It was also unclear whether the current charges might be dropped.

Lukashenko, in comments to journalists on Saturday, hit back over the affair, telling Moscow: "Mind your own business, like America and the West should do."


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