Belarus' ex-presidential candidate sentenced

A Belarusian presidential candidate was sentenced to five years in prison Saturday following a trial that he denounced as political punishment for challenging the nation's authoritarian ruler.

A district court in the Belarusian capital handed out the sentence to Andrei Sannikov after convicting him on charges of staging riots following December's presidential election.

Sannikov called the charges "absurd" in a statement before the verdict, which was condemned by the U.S. and Britain.

"This is a political punishment for me as a presidential candidate who has formed a strong team of professionals and declared readiness to take charge of the country," he said.

Sannikov, a 57-year-old former deputy foreign minister, said that he was tortured by the secret police and that its chief personally threatened harsh reprisals against his wife and their 4-year-old son.

Sannikov's wife, Irina Khalip, who is an independent journalist, is facing a trial, and authorities threatened earlier this year to put their son in an orphanage.

Another four opposition activists were also given prison terms of 3 and 3 1/2 years in the same trial.

Sannikov's trial was the latest move in an ongoing crackdown on dissent unleashed by the government of President Alexander Lukashenko, who was declared the winner of the December's election with nearly 80 percent of the vote. International observers strongly criticized the election.

Police violently dispersed a rally that drew tens of thousands of protesters on the election night. Some 700 people were arrested, including seven presidential candidates.

Dubbed "Europe's last dictator" by the West, Lukashenko has run Belarus with an iron fist for nearly 17 years, retaining Soviet-style controls over the economy and cracking down on opposition and independent media. However, his authority has been shaken recently by a worsening financial crisis and a subway bombing.

The exchange rate of the national currency of cash-strapped Belarus plunged by 30 percent this week after the government completed its devaluation, a move that will eat into people's salaries and cause price hikes. Hard currency reserves have plummeted to less than $4 billion, and staples such as vegetable oil and sugar began vanishing from stores.

"A severe economic crisis has prompted Lukashenko to tighten repression to prevent the opposition from forming the core of protests," said Alexander Klaskovsky, an independent political analyst.

Belarus was further destabilized by last month's subway bombing that killed 14 people and wounded more than 200. It was the first deadly bombing in the tightly-controlled nation without any significant separatist or religious militant groups and where the opposition is largely peaceful, leaving anti-terrorism experts puzzled over who might be behind it.

Prosecutors have brought terrorism charges against two blue-collar workers accused of carrying out the April 11 attack.

Last month, the government shut two leading independent dailies after issuing a reprimand for their coverage of the subway attack, adding to fears that the bombing is being used as a pretext to stamp out the last vestiges of political pluralism and dissent.

The U.S. and European Union have imposed sanctions, including a travel ban on Lukashenko and his officials, in response to the crackdown on the opposition.

The U.S. State Department issued a statement condemning Sannikov's conviction and other trials of presidential candidates and opposition activists.

"Belarus should immediately and unconditionally release all political prisoners and cease continuing human rights violations against critics of the government," it said. "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."

Britain's Europe minister David Lidington also voiced deep concern about Sannikov's conviction, calling it 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," he said.