By Tatiana Kalinovskaya, Agence France-Presse December 23, 2010
Belarus has opened criminal probes against 18 leading opposition figures over their involvement in post-election protests that could see them jailed for up to 15 years, a rights group said Wednesday.
The 18 include a swath of the opposition and the liberal media elite, who have been subjected to a crackdown since protests erupted following authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko's re-election in polls Sunday that international observers said fell well short of democratic standards.
Belarus has said it arrested more than 600 people for involvement in the protests, which saw thousands take to the streets to denounce alleged election fraud.
The crackdown has sparked international outcry, with Britain and Germany expressing their concerns Wednesday.
"I understand that the conditions in which detainees are being held are utterly unacceptable and designed to punish and intimidate," British Foreign Secretary William Hague said in a statement, calling for their release.
The 18 are suspected of organizing "mass disturbances" leading to violence, property damage and resistance to the security services, the Vesna (Spring) rights group said. If found guilty, they face jail terms of five to 15 years.
They include the most prominent opposition candidates in the elections -- former deputy foreign minister and founder of the Charter97.orgnews site Andrei Sannikov and the poet Vladimir Nekliayev, it said.
Four other candidates -- Rygor Kostusev, Vitaly Rymashevsky, Dmitry Uss, and Nikolai Statkevich -- are also named as suspects.
The list also features some of the most prominent journalists in the country, including Irina Khalip, who writes for Russia's liberal Novaya Gazeta newspaper and is Sannikov's wife, and Natalya Radina, an editor at Charter97.
All of the candidates but Kostusev, who was freed after a brief detention, remained behind bars though authorities had yet to confirm they had been formally charged.