MINSK A court in Belarus Thursday sentenced two political opponents of President Alexander Lukashenko to prison terms for organizing a mass protest against his re-election last December.
The move is likely to trigger new economic sanctions from Western governments at a time when Belarus is struggling with a financial crisis. But Lukashenko Wednesday hinted that he may pardon convicted opposition figures in what analysts said would be an attempt to rebuild relations.
Nikolai Statkevich and Dmitry Uss, both of whom ran against Lukashenko in last year's election, were sentenced to six and five-and-a-half years in prison respectively.
Lukashenko, in power since 1994, has cracked down on opposition since securing a fourth term in office in a vote that Western monitors criticized as fraudulent. Demonstrators took to the streets in their thousands in Minsk in the most serious protests in years.
Earlier this month, leading opposition figure Andrei Sannikov of the Charter 97 rights group, who also stood against Lukashenko, was sentenced to five years in a high-security prison on a similar charge.
Sannikov's wife, journalist Irina Khalip, and two other presidential challengers, Vladimir Neklyayev and Vitaly Rymashevsky, have been given suspended sentences.
Another presidential candidate, Alex Mikhalevich, has been given political asylum in the Czech Republic, where he fled after accusing Belarus's KGB security service of torturing him.
The crackdown has prompted the European Union and the United States to introduce sanctions that include travel bans on Lukashenko and 150 other officials.
It has also made Belarus's chances of securing financial aid from the International Monetary Fund slim, at best.
Initially, Lukashenko said he was not bothered by the sanctions as Belarus, facing a large current account deficit and a run on its rouble currency, which has been devalued by over a third this week, asked Russia for $3 billion in bailout loans.
But Russia this month refused to provide the loan in a single instalment, offering only $1.2 billion this year and advising Minsk to seek IMF aid.
Wednesday, in a gesture seen by analysts as an attempt to mend ties with the West, Lukashenko said Belarus could free jailed opposition leaders.
"After Lukashenko's statement yesterday, it seems that he plans to pardon all of them, which makes the length of their sentences irrelevant," said Belarussian political analyst Alexander Feduta.
"What is important is that they have been found guilty and Lukashenko can display mercy."
(Reporting by Vasily Fedosenko and Andrei Makhovsky; Writing by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Kevin Liffey)