Belarus' ex-presidential candidates sentenced

Two former Belarusian presidential candidates were handed suspended sentences Friday on charges of organizing riots after last year's disputed election in the authoritarian ex-Soviet country.

The unexpectedly soft penalty suggests President Alexander Lukashenko's iron-fisted government may be sensitive to Western criticism of its crackdown on dissent.

A district court in the Belarusian capital sentenced Vladimir Neklyayev and Vitaly Rymashevsky to two years in prison each with two-years suspension. Another four opposition activists were given suspended sentences of one and two years.

Prosecutors had asked the court to give Neklyayev and Rymashevsky actual prison terms. Friday's ruling led to immediate speculation that Lukashenko's government is responding to strong condemnation from the West after another presidential candidate, Andrei Sannikov, was sentenced to five years in prison last week.

Two other candidates are still on trial awaiting a verdict, and another one has fled the country.

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

About 700 people, including seven presidential candidates, were arrested when police broke up a protest against alleged fraud after the polls closed in last December's election.

International observers strongly criticized the vote in which Lukashenko was declared the winner.

"Massive repressions and tough sentences are aimed to discourage people from going to the polls," Rymashevsky said in court. "But I'm sure that even more people will come to the square after the next election."

Dubbed "Europe's last dictator" by the West, Lukashenko has run Belarus with a tight grip 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 65-year old Neklyayev said in his final word before the verdict that he wanted to "sweep away the rubble of dictatorship and was waiting for our neighbors from east and west, Russia and the European Union, to help us."

Neklyayev was beaten by security agents during his arrest and later taken from a hospital bed to prison.