WARSAW President Barack Obama on Friday condemned jail sentences imposed on Belarussian opposition politicians shortly before his arrival in Poland for talks on promoting democracy in eastern Europe and North Africa.
A court in Belarus on Thursday sentenced two political opponents of President Alexander Lukashenko to prison terms for organizing a mass protest against his re-election last December.
Dmitry Uss and Nikolai Statkevich both ran against Lukashenko in an election that Western monitors have branded fraudulent. A third candidate, Andrei Sannikov, also recently received a jail sentence and two others got suspended sentences.
"The United States considers these candidates and the other courageous activists and candidates arrested and charged in conjunction with the crackdown on December 19 as political prisoners," Obama said in a statement.
"In a major step backward for democracy in Belarus, their trials were clearly politically motivated and failed to meet even the most minimal standards required of a fair and independent judiciary," the president said.
Obama said the United States would pursue sanctions against targeted Belarussian state-owned firms. Like the European Union, Washington has already slapped travel bans and asset freezes on top Belarussian officials.
"These measures are targeted against those responsible for the repression, particularly President Lukashenko, and are not directed against the people of Belarus," said the statement, released as Obama headed to Poland from France, where he had attended a summit of the Group of Eight leaders.
The EU announced a further tightening of its sanctions against Belarus on Monday. Even Russia, Minsk's traditional ally, has criticized the "harsh" prison sentences.
Lukashenko has tried to shrug off the Western sanctions but, facing a big current account deficit, a run on the Belarussian currency and a tough Russian stance over providing loans, he has said Minsk might free jailed opposition leaders.
Obama is due to join a working dinner in Warsaw on Friday evening with the presidents of some 20 mostly ex-communist central European countries to discuss promoting democracy in the Arab world and in states like Belarus.
Poland, which has long championed pro-democracy activists in Belarus and which assumes the EU's rotating presidency on July 1, also urged Minsk on Friday to free all political prisoners.
"This attempt to stifle people's justified aspirations to live in dignity will not succeed," the foreign ministry said.
(Writing by Gareth Jones, editing by Mark Heinrich)