MINSK A Belarussian court jailed leading human rights activist Ales Belyatsky for 4-1/2 years for tax evasion on Thursday, sparking an outcry in the European Union, particularly in neighboring EU countries which unwittingly aided his prosecution.
Belyatsky, 49, heads Vesna-96, the best-known rights group in the former Soviet republic, which has campaigned for scores of opposition activists prosecuted by the government of President Alexander Lukashenko.
The EU immediately denounced the sentence as "clearly politically motivated" and said it had targeted Belyatsky and his Vesna co-workers because of their "courageous support to victims of repression."
Cries of "Shame!" rang out in the Minsk courtroom from his supporters when judge Sergei Bondarenko handed down sentence, saying it was impossible for him to pass a lesser punishment.
The outcome, in the face of fierce condemnation of the trial in the West, supported the view that Lukashenko has written off relations with the EU for now and is not relying much on Western help to see him through a financial crisis.
With fresh loans from Moscow now assured, Lukashenko, once dubbed Europe's last dictator by the United States, appears to be signaling that he will not relax his hardline policies toward the political opposition in exchange for Western help.
High-ranking Belarus financial officials have expressed concern that Lukashenko's hardline policies could endanger possible credit of up to $7 billion from the International Monetary Fund.
But in the past few weeks Belarus has found financial help more forthcoming from Russia. Last week Sberbank and regional lender Eurasian Development Bank announced they would put up a loan of $1 billion to help it over its crisis, which was caused by excessive pre-election public spending.
Russian gas giant Gazprom confirmed that it will sign a new gas deal with Belarus on Friday in exchange for acquiring ownership of Belarus's gas pipeline operator Beltransgaz.
"SENTENCE FOR HUMAN RIGHTS"
The EU, in its statement issued by the bloc's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, said the sentence passed on Belyatsky was "a symbol of the ever intensifying crackdown on civil society in the country."
The human rights organization Amnesty International said his conviction was "a disturbing sign of the vindictive campaign" waged by the authorities against rights' defenders.
"Sentencing Ales Belyatsky is a sentence for human rights in Belarus. It confirms that the current regime does not respect basic standards of civil rights and freedoms," Poland's foreign ministry said in a statement.
"The charge of tax evasion was merely an excuse to again attack the non-governmental sector, which the regime wants to take full control of," it said.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Audronius Azubalis said: "This case must be seen as part of a broader pattern of harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders in Belarus." He called for Belyatsky's release.
Belyatsky was arrested and charged after officials in Poland and Lithuania unwittingly helped his prosecution by supplying information about bank accounts held in his name after a request by Belarus's financial authorities.
Belarus imposes tough restrictions on the financing of non-governmental organizations and their activities that virtually rule out any financial help from abroad.
The furor that ensued led to a public apology in August by Warsaw and also caused high-level embarrassment in Lithuania.
Senior EUofficials had earlier called for Belyatsky's release, saying the charges against him were "a politically motivated pretext to target his important work to the benefit of victims of repression."
The prosecution had asked for a five-year sentence to be handed down on Belyatsky, who listened to his sentence from inside a metal cage in the courtroom.
Vesna-96 says the money held by Belyatsky in Poland and Lithuania belonged to the organization and was set aside for paying for human rights activities and supporting political prisoners and their families.
It had latterly been used to support families of opposition activists arrested in a police sweep last December after mass street rallies against Lukashenko's re-election for a fourth term.
Two opposition leaders are still in jail for their part in those protests.
The EU and the United States introduced travel restrictions and other sanctions against Lukashenko and other officials after an election widely criticized as rigged.
(Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska in Warsaw and Justyna Pawlak in Brussels; Writing by Richard Balmforth; Editing by Louise Ireland)