MINSK One of President Alexander Lukashenko's main political opponents was sentenced on Saturday to five years in a high-security jail after being convicted of helping to organize a rally against the leader's re-election.
Andrei Sannikov, a former deputy foreign minister and co-founder of the Charter 97 rights group, was found guilty of organizing mass disturbances, a charge he had denied.
Sannikov, 57, was the first to be sentenced of five presidential candidates who are standing trial in Minsk for their part in a mass protest on December 19, the day Lukashenko was re-elected to a fourth term in power.
The crackdown on the rally, which was followed by mass arrests of dissidents and opposition activists, triggered U.S. and European Union sanctions against the hardline leader, including a travel ban on him and his circle.
The political opposition says the re-election of Lukashenko, in power in the ex-Soviet republic since 1994, was fraudulent and Western monitors have described it as "flawed."
The state prosecutor had asked for a seven-year jail term to be handed down on Sannikov for the offence, which carries a maximum of 15 years in jail. Sannikov received the lowest jail sentence allowed by law for the offence.
"Sannikov is guilty of organizing mass disturbances, accompanied by violence against the person, attacks, destruction of property ... he led a crowd that committed excesses," said presiding judge Natalya Chetvertakova, reading the sentence.
After she had delivered the verdict and sentence, Sannikov smiled from inside the cage where he was being held with four co-accused. "The main thing is to protect my family!" he called out to supporters. Some supporters jumped up and shouted "Glory to the heroes!." A group of about 10 men chanted "Freedom!"
Four other opposition activists being tried with Sannikov were sentenced to jail terms of between three and 3 1/2 years.
"They (the authorities) have run over our family like a steam-roller," said Sannikov's mother, Alla Sannikova, in tears in the court's corridors.
Sannikov's wife, journalist Irina Khalip, is also on trial over her part in the protest and sentence is due to be passed on her on Monday; the prosecutor has asked for a two-year suspended sentence. The family has expressed fear the couple's four-year- old son could be taken into state care if they are both jailed.
The sentencing of Sannikov's co-defendants also provoked emotional scenes.
"Thank you, my son. I love you. I am proud of you," Lyudmila Mirzoyanova, mother of 21-year-old Fedor Mirzoyanov who was jailed for three years, called out in the corridor.
Two other activists who ran against Lukashenko, Nikolai Statkevich and Dmitry Uss, are on trial on the same charge as Sannikov, of organizing mass unrest. Two other presidential candidates, Vladimir Neklyayev and Vitaly Rymashevsky, are being tried on lesser charges linked with the December protests.
Since the crackdown on the opposition, the United States and the European Union have blacklisted Lukashenko, imposing sanctions including a travel ban on him and 150 associates.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the United States considered the five presidential candidates "political prisoners" and called for their immediate release.
"The results of ongoing trials will be taken into account as the United States continues to review its relations with Belarus and consider further measures."
British Minister for Europe David Lidington said the trial "marked a new low for the rule of law in Belarus. Mr Sannikov is guilty of nothing more than the peaceful expression of his opinion about the results of December's flawed elections."
The trials coincide with a severe currency crisis in the ex-Soviet republic in which the national currency, the Belarussian rouble, has plunged against the dollar.
The threat of devaluation has led to a shortage of imported goods in shops and people are hoarding food staples such as vegetable oil and sugar to hedge against hard times.
Analysts say the economic crisis is pushing Belarus toward its old Soviet master, Russia, on whom it relies for energy imports. Moscow last week refused to put up a loan of $1 billion which Minsk had been counting on to help it overcome the crisis.
(Writing by Richard Balmforth; Editing by Peter Graff)