Belarus jails opposition leader for 5 years

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Belarus on Saturday jailed opposition leader Andrei Sannikov for five years on charges of organising protests after the disputed re-election of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko.

Sannikov, 57, is the most prominent figure in a series of trials of opposition figures arrested after the December 19 elections which Lukashenko swept with almost 80 percent of the vote, but were slammed as flawed by observers.

Amid highly emotional scenes, four other younger defendants -- the youngest only 19 -- were handed sentences of up to three-and-a-half years in the same trial, an AFP correspondent reported from the courtroom.

Britain called the trial "a new low for the rule of law in Belarus".

And the United States condemned the conviction as "politically motivated", saying it considered Sannikov and other candidates detained after standing against Lukashenko in the elections to be political prisoners.

According to the ruling issued at the Minsk court, Sannikov will serve his sentence in a high-security prison. Prosecutors had asked for a seven-year term while according to the law he could have faced a maximum term of 15 years.

"Look after my loved ones!" Sannikov shouted through the courtoom cage after the verdict was read out.

"We will look after them, do not worry," replied his father-in-law Vladimir Khalip, a prominent playwright.

Supporters in the court shouted "Freedom!" and "Shame on the authorities!" while others cried. Sannikov's lawyer Marina Kovalevskaya said the defence would appeal the verdict.

Sannikov was arrested along with hundreds of others, including his journalist wife Irina Khalip, on December 19 and says he was repeatedly beaten by security forces that night.

Their son Danik celebrates his fourth birthday on Sunday while the verdict in Irina Khalip's own trial is set for Monday.

"The Belarussian judicial system is bulldozing our family," said Sannikov's mother Alla, 78.

"They've given Danik a present -- they've taken his father. This is absurd, we have no justice, just one person who determines the fate of others as he wishes."

The youngest defendant at the trial, Ilya Vasilyevich, 19, was sentenced to three years in jail. Vladimir Ermenek, 20, was also jailed for three years and Oleg Gnedchik, 25, for three-and-half years

Fyodor Mirzoyanov, 20, was jailed for three years. His tearful mother Lyudmila was not even allowed into the courtroom to say goodbye to her son.

Sannikov polled the most votes of the nine opposition candidates in the election with 2.43 percent, according to official results. Five of these candidates face jail over their protests and Sannikov was the first to receive a verdict.

The crackdown on the opposition has ended a cautious rapprochement between the West and Lukashenko, the man once condemned by Washington for running Europe's last dictatorship who has now ruled Belarus for almost 17 years.

Sannikov served as a deputy foreign minister but then resigned in protest at the president's behaviour in 1996 and founded the opposition Charter 97 movement and news website.

In an impassioned final address to the court, Sannikov had vowed that one day Belarus would be free and then its current rulers would be the ones standing trial.

"December 19 was not just an act of protest but an act of hope.

"We just want one thing -- to live in our country, to vote in clean elections and not fear for our lives and those of our loved ones. I want to warn all those who neglect the law that one day you will be the accused and be punished.

In a human drama that attracted global attention, the authorities at one point sought to take custody of his son Danik from Irina Khalip's family before backing off.

Khalip was released but remains under house arrest in their apartment where two KGB agents are now permanently based, and is forbidden to contact her husband.

She left home for the first time last week to attend her own trial, where prosecutors are demanding that she be given a two year suspended sentence.

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

© 2011 AFP

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