Opposition youth leader goes on trial behind closed doors in Belarus

The Associated Press

MINSK, Belarus Several hundred activists protested outside a court building as an opposition leader went on trial in Belarus on Monday and authorities in the tightly controlled former Soviet republic said the proceedings would be conducted behind closed doors.

Zmitser Dashkevich, the 25-year-old leader of the unregistered Young Front, was arrested last month on charges of illegal political activity and faces up to two years in prison if convicted.

The charges were based on restrictive legislation adopted ahead of the March presidential election in which authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko won a third term in a vote dismissed as illegitimate by Western governments and his opponents at home.

A few hundred people walked in circles outside the courthouse in the capital, Minsk, shouting "Free Dashkevich!" and more than 1,200 people signed a petition demanding his release. The building was protected by riot police.

"Repression will not stop in this country while Lukashenko is in power," said opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich, who led unprecedented protests following the election.He said the trial was driven by fear "because the regime understands that it is losing and that change is unavoidable."

Also outside the courthouse were the U.S. and German ambassadors. The United States and European Union imposed sanctions on Lukashenko and other Belarusian officials following the election, which as marred by arrests and harassment of opponents.

German Ambassador Martin Hecker likened Dashkevich's trial to secret trials in Nazi Germany and suggested the Belarusian government had not learned the lessons of the Stalin era.

U.S. Ambassador Karen Stewart said the United States will closely follow Dashkevich's trial.

A lawyer for Dashkevich, Alexander Galiyev, said he could not discuss the proceedings because he had signed a document pledging not to reveal details.