Minsk - Seventeen opponents of Belarus' authoritarian President Aleksander Lukashenko will face criminal charges and prison sentences for their part in recent anti-government protests, a human rights group said Wednesday.
Six of the nine politicians who ran against Lukashenko in Sunday's presidential poll, four of their campaign staff and two journalists are among those facing charges of 'inciting mass disorder,' according to a statement by the Minsk-based Vesna group.
Anatoliy Lebedko, one of the anti-Lukashenko candidates now being held in a secret police prison, has declared a hunger strike and is refusing to answer investigators' questions, his wife, Svetlana Lebedko, told the Belapan news agency.
'He is not cooperating with the investigation,' she said.
Politician Nikolai Statkevich, who like Lebedko was an opposition candidate in the Sunday election, also has begun a hunger strike, as has a Russian journalist, the Interfax news agency reported.
Lebedko, Statkevich, and other senior opposition leaders now in detention face criminal charges carrying a penalty of three to 10 years in prison, Vesna said.
More than 20,000 Lukashenko opponents protested in the capital Minsk on Sunday night against alleged election fraud. The former collective farm boss received 79 per cent of the vote, according to official vote counts.
Police used force to break up the demonstration, arresting more than 600 people, among them Belarusian and Russian reporters.
Local judges on Tuesday found most guilty of the misdemeanor charges of public disorder or refusing police orders. They were fined or got jail sentences ranging from five to 15 days.
The large number of new prisoners was overtaxing the Minsk city jail system, and authorities were experiencing difficulties providing food and medical care, some opposition spokesmen said.
'My client (opposition leader Andrei Sannikov) is in horrible condition,' said Pavel Salenko, Sannikov's lawyer. 'His leg appears to me to be broken, and the doctors haven't yet decided what the problem is.'
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) called on the government to release detained journalists and to allow the media to work freely.
'We are appalled by the continued arrests and jail terms handed down to journalists,' said Nina Ognianova, a CPJ researcher.
Lukashenko said Monday he would make sure those found responsible for organizing the demonstrations were 'prosecuted to the full extent of the law.'
Interior Minister Anatoliy Kushelov on Wednesday echoed Lukashenko, telling reporters in Minsk, 'We did not catch every one of those who ran away from the square ... but not one of them will escape prosecution ... we have the will and the resources.'
The international community has criticized Lukashenko for using Soviet electoral tactics to win the presidential vote and for the use of force against protesters, and warned his actions could further isolate Belarus.
The European Union until recently enforced a travel ban on Lukashenko and his close associates because of their human rights record.
'We really hope that that (new EU sanctions against Belarus) doesn't happen,' said Valeriy Voronetskiy, deputy foreign minister. 'We are interested in a dialogue with the EU ... we want to move forward.'