Belarus opposition leader Andrei Sannikov goes on trial

Andrei Sannikov (27 April 2011)
Image caption Andrei Sannikov observed proceedings at Minsk Partizan district court from a metal cage

A high-profile opposition leader in Belarus has gone on trial charged with organising mass protests after last year's presidential election.

Andrei Sannikov, a former deputy foreign minister and co-founder of the Charter 97 group, pleaded innocent. He could face up to 15 years in prison.

Mr Sannikov was one of seven presidential candidates detained after Alexander Lukashenko won a fourth term.

The EU and US condemned the crackdown and imposed sanctions on Mr Lukashenko.

He has been president of the former Soviet republic since 1994.

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Dressed in a jacket and looking calm, Mr Sannikov observed proceedings at Minsk Partizan district court from a metal cage.

He was accused of organising "mass disturbances" by calling on people to take part in a protest march on 19 December, and then leading it. Hundreds of opposition activists were detained at the demonstration.

Mr Sannikov's wife, Irina Khalip, who is a journalist for the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, was also arrested. The authorities sought to take custody of their three-year-old son, Danil, but Mrs Khalip was bailed.

She remains under house arrest and is forbidden from contacting her husband, who is being held at a prison run by state security service, the KGB, with two of the other presidential candidates who were detained.

Earlier on Wednesday, one of Mr Sannikov's closest aides, Dmitry Bondarenko, was jailed for two years for organising actions which "violated public order", the human rights activists said.

"This is no more than a reprisal against political opponents," Mr Bondarenko told the court in his final statement.

The opposition said Mr Lukashenko's re-election with nearly 80% of the vote was fraudulent. Western monitors described the poll as "flawed".

Meanwhile, the information ministry said the main opposition newspaper, Narodnaya Volya, and a smaller weekly, Nasha Niva, had been closed after receiving further warnings about their political coverage.

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