Four face 15-year sentences after demonstrations against Alexander Lukashenko's re-election
* Tom Parfitt in Moscow
At least four former presidential candidates in Belarus are facing up to 15 years in prison after they were charged with "organising mass disorder" during protests over the disputed re-election of hardline leader Alexander Lukashenko this month.
Charges may also be laid against one more candidate already in custody and two who are free but are barred from leaving the country.
The prosecutions, set in motion yesterday, are likely to intensify international criticism of Lukashenko, whose security forces launched a bloody crackdown on the demonstrations in central Minsk on 19 December.
The accused candidates include poet Vladimir Neklyayev, 64, and former deputy foreign minister, Andrei Sannikov, 56, who were both beaten by riot police during the protests.
Sannikov's sister, Irina Bogdanova, a doctor who lives in Britain, urged European governments to take action. "I have no hope for justice," she said. "Europe must show a united front against this tyranny. There need to be sanctions which target the leadership in Minsk without harming the Belarusian people."
Supporters of the accused men say their alleged crimes were trumped up by a dictatorial regime which feigned openness during the electoral campaign only to brutally suppress dissent when it saw the scale of public anger.
Observers say the European Union was left with egg on its face after attempts to cultivate Lukashenko, who was promised a $3.6bn (?2.3bn) EU aid package if the election results were judged to be free and fair.
"Lukashenko is very cunning and he will now use my brother and the other prisoners as a bargaining chip, to extract some new concession in exchange for their release," said Bogdanova. "But he must be confronted. To appease this man is only to create a new Hitler in Europe."
The protests began when thousands of people came on to the streets of Minsk after Belarus's electoral commission indicated Lukashenko would get 80% of the vote, with his closest challenger, Sannikov, on 2.4%.
Truncheon-wielding police attacked the crowds after a small number of people - provocateurs, according to the opposition - broke windows and doors in a government building.
The UN-affiliated Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) criticised the violence and said the vote count was "flawed" and "bad or very bad in almost half of all observed polling stations".
At least 600 people were sentenced to short jail terms for participating in the protests, and about 20, including the jailed candidates, have been investigated on criminal charges that carry long sentences.
Other people reported to have been charged are candidates Nikolai Statkevich and Vitaly Rymashevksy, and Sannikov's wife, Irina Khalip, a journalist.
Neklyayev, the poet who was struck on the head during the protests, was denied visits while he was held in a KGB prison for several days, leading to concerns for his health. His lawyer saw him earlier this week and said he was suffering from abnormally high blood pressure.