Belarus court convicts 4 as Polish spies

The Associated Press

MINSK, Belarus: Belarus's Supreme Court convicted four army officers of treason and spying for Poland, sentencing them Friday to 7 to 10 years in prison. They could have received the death penalty.

Prosecutors have said the officers transported documents across the border into Poland inside the kind of fire extinguisher that motorists in Belarus are required to keep in their cars.

When the arrests were announced in July, the deputy chief of the Belarussian KGB said that Polish intelligence was eager to obtain information on Russian antimissile defense systems in Belarus, especially long-range S-300 air defense missiles.

The four stood silently in handcuffs as the Supreme Court's military branch read out the verdict.

Belarussian law stipulates that treason is punishable by death; the court did not explain why they instead received prison sentences.

Antagonistic relations with Warsaw have worsened over U.S. plans to deploy part of a missile defense system in Poland, a NATO and EU member.

Belarus has a large number of ethnic Poles living in western regions, and President Aleksandr Lukashenko's government, which has quashed opposition and dissent in the former Soviet republic, fears Polish security services may try to use Belarussian Poles to undermine his government.

Lukashenko is a pariah in the West and is described by Washington as the "last dictator in Europe."

He had accused Poland of working against him before last year's presidential election.