Belarussian politician wins EU award

Belarussian opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich has been awarded the European Parliament's annual Sakharov human rights prize in an apparent bid to hasten the demise of what has been called "Europe's last dictatorship".

The award to Milinkevich, who lost to President Alexander Lukashenko in March polls condemned by the EU and the US as fraudulent, comes after EU governments this week widened punitive travel bans on top Belarussian officials.

Leaders of parliament's political groups awarded Milinkevich the prize for furthering freedom of thought, a statement said.

Milinkevich, 59, was arrested and held for 15 days for protesting against the March poll results. He was given a hero's welcome when he visited the EU legislature earlier this year.

Leading US officials have branded Lukashenko's government "Europe's last dictatorship", although the EU has been more cautious in its public description of the authorities in Minsk.

Past winners of the 18-year-old prize, named after Soviet nuclear scientist Andrei Sakharov who became an outspoken human rights campaigner and critic of the arms race, include South Africa's Nelson Mandela and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

The other finalists this year were campaigners against hostage-taking in Colombia, and Lebanese journalist and diplomat Ghassan Tueni, nominated to commemorate the assassinations of Lebanese democrats including former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri.

European governments toughened their stance on Belarus this week, adding four more officials to a list of 31 - including Lukashenko - banned from entering the EU because of their involvement in a crackdown on democracy.

The four were judges and prosecutors involved in the much-criticised trial of jailed Belarussian opposition activist Alexander Kozulin, who announced on Friday he was going on a hunger strike.