Belarus protesters go on trial as new rallies loom

By Nikolai Pavlov

MINSK (Reuters) - Belarussian courts on Monday began trying opposition protesters detained when police broke up a weekend rally against a presidential election judged unfair in the West.

The opposition had rallied up to 10,000 supporters for protests over the past week, demonstrations unmatched in recent years in a country ruled with a Soviet-style authoritarian hand by veteran leader Alexander Lukashenko.

Police on Saturday broke up the protests against Lukashenko's landslide re-election on March 19 and detained demonstrators, prompting rebukes from European countries and pledges of more rallies from the opposition.

On Monday, buses drove dozens of mostly young people from detention centres in the capital Minsk to court. They face sentences of up to 15 days in jail for joining unauthorised rallies and violating public order.

Among those detained was Alexander Kozulin, an opposition presidential challenger. Police have declined to say where Kozulin is being held and it was not clear if he would appear in court on Monday.

Standing next to a concrete wall tipped with barbed wire at one detention centre on Minsk's fringes, gloomy relatives waved to some of the detained who made victory signs from inside a bus guarded by police.

Larisa, a middle-aged woman who like many in today's Belarus declined to give her full name, said her son had been arrested at a metro station as he carried hot tea to opposition protesters.

"He didn't even manage to make it to them, he simply sympathised with them," she told Reuters Television. "He did not incite anyone to violence."


Opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich -- who along with Kozulin called the protests after polls gave Lukashenko, criticised in the West for his authoritarian rule but viewed by Moscow as an ally -- 83 percent of the vote.

Police said they only used force after the opposition rally turned violent and endangered their men. They have not disclosed the number of the detained but the opposition say around 100 protesters are being held.

Milinkevich has pledged new rallies and said the "bestial savagery" of the government showed it had lost all authority.

The European Union urged Lukashenko, admired by many at home as a man whose rule has saved Belarus from the turmoil that befell many ex-Soviet countries, to release Kozulin and said it was "appalled" by the clashes.

Minsk responded by accusing the West of trying to foment unrest and said the European Union and Washington were "on the verge of anti-Belarussian hysteria".

In separate actions, clearly well-orchestrated by the authorities, groups of 40 to 50 young people from a pro-Lukashenko youth body gathered at the Lithuanian and French embassies to protest "the West's meddling in Belarus's affairs".