May 20, 2011 / 3:07 PM / 9 years ago

Belarus court sentences two Lukashenko challengers

MINSK (Reuters) - A Belarussian court handed down suspended two-year prison terms on Friday to two opposition politicians who ran against President Alexander Lukashenko in the presidential election last December.

Vladimir Neklyayev, 65, and Vitaly Rymashevsky, 36, were found guilty of organizing action that violated public order. Sentences for both were suspended by two years, the Frunze district court of Minsk ruled.

Last week, 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 the more serious charge of organising mass disturbances.

Neklyayev linked his relatively soft sentence to pressure from the West and popular support.

“If it was not for the support from the U.S. and the European Union I would not be standing here in front of you but would rather sit (in a KGB security service prison) answering the question about who I am spying for,” he told reporters.

“This is (also) a result of people’s solidarity.”

Two more former presidential candidates, Nikolai Statkevich and Dmitry Uss, are also on trial over the protest in Minsk that followed Lukashenko’s re-election, which was criticized by Western observers as fraudulent.

The police crackdown on the Minsk demonstration, in which hundreds of opposition activists and dissidents were rounded up, was condemned by rights groups and Western governments, putting Belarus in political isolation at a time of economic hardship.

The United States and the European Union have since blacklisted Lukashenko, in power since 1994, imposing sanctions including a travel ban on him and 150 of his associates in power.

Even Belarus’s traditional ally Russia, which Minsk hopes will give it a $3 billion loan to stem a currency crisis, criticized “harsh” prison sentences handed down to opposition leaders last week.

The foreign ministers of France, Germany and Poland said on Friday the EU was planning further sanctions against Belarus “targeting specific companies... financing the regime.”

Reporting by Vladimir Kostin; Writing by Olzhas Auyezov; editing by Mark Heinrich

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