Belarus opposition leader's wife avoids jail: court

16th May 2011, Comments 0 comments

Belarus on Monday handed a two-year suspended prison sentence to journalist Irina Khalip, two days after the jailing of her husband and opposition leader Andrei Sannikov sparked a global outcry.

Khalip was able to walk free after the verdict from a Minsk court, which also cancelled the house arrest order that she had been subjected to until now, an AFP correspondent in court reported.

A Minsk court on Saturday had jailed Sannikov for five years for organising the December 19 protests against authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko, where Khalip had also been arrested.

Khalip, 43, was eventually released in January and warded off an attempt by the authorities to take custody of their son. But she was put under house arrest with two agents from the KGB security service based in her apartment.

"My son and I were held as hostages while my husband was tortured in jail," Khalip said outside the courtroom after her release, as friends greeted her with flowers and cheers.

"Now that he is convicted he will become a hostage to be exchanged for some Luis Corvalan," she added of her husband, referring to the Chilean communist leader exchanged for Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky in the 1970s.

Sannikov testified last week that he was subjected to torture in the KGB jail and agents threatened to harm his family if he did not cooperate with them.

"My son turned four yesterday. He thinks his father is in the magical city Radiator Springs, buying him presents. I don't know when I will tell him the truth," Khalip said before hugging her mother Lucina and her mother-in-law Alla Sannikova.

Khalip and Sannikov were arrested on the night of the protests together with hundreds of other people who flooded a central Minsk square to protest what they perceived as unfair election results.

British, EU, and US officials have condemned the ruling against Sannikov and threatened further sanctions against the ex-Soviet state, which is teetering on the verge of a full-scale economic crisis.

Unusually, Russia added its voice to the criticism Monday, with the foreign ministry describing the verdicts as "harsh" and calling on Belarus to "abide more responsibly to its international commitments on human rights and freedoms."

Trials are continuing for another four candidates who challenged Lukashenko in the polls, which international monitors criticized for a lack of transparency.

A sixth former candidate, Ales Mikhalevich, has fled the country and secured asylum in the Czech Republic.

Khalip's employer, Russian opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, denounced the verdict Monday as "illegal, politically-motivated and very cruel," editor-in-chief Dmitry Muratov said on Moscow Echo radio.

Although a suspended sentence allows the convict to seek employment, Muratov expressed doubt that Khalip will be able to continue reporting on events connected with the December protests.

The journalist can still be jailed if she breaks a law in the next two years. She is barred from leaving the country and will stand trial again in two years that will decide if she has sufficiently complied.

In the same trial, opposition activist Sergei Martselev, 34, received the same two-year suspended sentence while fellow campaigner Pavel Severinets, 34, was sentenced to three years of work in an open-type institution.

Thirty people have now been convicted in post-election trials, of whom 22 were given jail terms.

An ex-collective farm boss who has ruled Belarus for almost 17 years, Lukashenko was once accused by the United States of running Europe's last dictatorship and the crackdown has ended any hopes of a rapprochement with the West.

© 2011 AFP

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