Seven members of the opposition and former presidential hopefuls in Belarus have been charged with organizing mass riots.
Besides the incumbent Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko, nine other candidates also took part in the presidential race. Seven of them may now pay dearly for attending civil protest actions that took place on the night of December 19 in Minsk, when tens of thousands of opposition supporters poured into the streets of the Belarusian capital to voice their dissatisfaction with the elections themselves and their results. Law enforcement agencies that subordinate to Lukashenko fiercely punished demonstrators, with many beaten up and arrested. And first of all, this goes for key opposition figures.
Today, the Belarusian KGB is holding five ex-presidential candidates: Vladimir Neklyaev and Andrei Sannikov, who were severely beaten by police on December 19, Vitaly Rymashevsky, Ales Mikhalevitch and Nikolai Statkevitch. Two more - Grigory Kostusev and Dmitry Uss - aren't in jail, but under investigation. The seven crusaders, who dared challenge Lukashenko's 16-year-long political monopoly, are all charged with organizing "mass riots". Under the Criminal Code, this may bring 15 years behind bars for the oppositional politicians.
Legal counsel for the Belarusian Journalists' Association Andrey Postunets believes the threat of a prison term to be real in this case:
"Experience has shown that a lot is real for us. Perhaps not all of them will be charged, but the fact that some of those already in detention are likely to face a prison term is doubtless. Perhaps not the full term, but this is the maximum possible under this article. But the threat is real, "warns the expert.
Meanwhile, it looks like Belarus' oppositional arrestees will have to wait for their day in court behind bars, says Valentin Stefanovitch, a representative of the Vesna human rights centre:
"Two months' detention was chosen as the measure of restraint. This is the minimal term of investigation under the Belarusian Code. So for two months, the dissenters are in prison but this doesn't mean that they'll be out in two months, or that their case will go to court, because the prosecution has the right to extend the investigation term and hence the detention period. The situation is very complicated because lawyers are also facing pressure. The Justice Ministry has instructed the Minsk Lawyers' Board to apply disciplinary action to lawyers informing the media about the health of their defendants, about their detention conditions and about the actions of law enforcement agencies. We fear that they may be stripped of the lawyers' licenses. This has happened before," the human rights activist stresses.
Meanwhile, lawyers and relatives of the arrested Vladimir Neklyaev are glad to at least receive some credible information about him. Recall that on December 19, after being beaten up by police, Neklyaev was taken to hospital with brain injuries. After a few hours, he was arrested and taken to an unknown location by people in civilian clothing. Afterwards, neither Neklyaev's wife, nor his legal counsel were allowed to visit him for a whole week. This lent itself to the gravest suppositions: there was no confidence that he was still alive. And now, at long last, his lawyer Tamara Sidorenko has informed that her client overcame a "hypertensive emergency, is suffering from high blood pressure and his overall health condition is poor". The news turned to be worrying, but better than the worst-case scenario.
However, one cannot help but ask: how humane is it to hold a person - a dissident and prominent poet - whose health condition is so poor in prison? Particularly given that Neklyaev played virtually no part in the December 19 events.