Top Belarus Opposition Leader Goes On Trial
Former opposition presidential candidate Andrey Sannikau could face up to 15 years in prison.
Early this morning, a courtroom in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, filled with the sound of cameras as photographers huddled around a metal cage holding former presidential candidate Andrey Sannikau.
The 57-year-old Sannikau, a former deputy foreign minister and a co-founder of the Charter 97 rights group, is facing trial for organizing what authorities say were "mass riots" following Belaruss disputed presidential election on December 19.
Sannikau listened quietly as a court official read out charges that he organized mass disorder by repeatedly urging unsanctioned protests and then leading the December 19 rally itself. He faces up to 15 years in jail if convicted. Sannikau pleaded innocent.
Seven defendants have already been sentenced to between two and four years in jail for their role in orchestrating protests against suspected vote-rigging in the December vote, which handed autocratic leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka a fourth term in office. Among those convicted is Dzmitry Bandarenka, a campaign worker for Sannikau, who today was handed a two-year sentence for "violating public order."
Eleven other activists in addition to Sannikau are due to be tried today on similar charges, including four being tried in the same court as Sannikau.
Activists have criticized the conduct of the trials so far, saying prosecutors have offered no incriminating evidence against the defendants. Aleh Hulak, the chairman of the Helsinki rights committee in Belarus, says he has little hope Sannikau will receive a fair trial. "Its obvious were seeing a very high level of unprofessionalism, " Hulak says. "Maybe theyre trying to come up with some facts that correspond to whatever theory they have in their minds, since theres no actual evidence in the case. Everything is unclear. Its a big case from which some pieces have been hastily removed. One thing is clear. Theres no court thats able to really conduct a proper trial and evaluate this case."
Sannikau, who was badly beaten at the time of his arrest, is the most senior of the defendants to be tried for his role in the demonstrations. His trial will be closely watched in the West, where officials imposed sanctions and a travel ban on Lukashenka and more than 100 of his associates following the crackdown.
Fighting back tears, Sannikaus mother, Ala Sannikava, said she fears the outcome of her sons trial. "His lawyers say they cant see his blame. But Im seeing the beginning of a show trial, " she says. "Its horrible…There are no rights, no laws, no fair trials. The law should function, but here its only when it applies. Im praying to God for help."
The wave of trials comes as Lukashenka faces growing economic troubles and a hard-currency shortage. Critics have accused the hard-line leader of using the election crackdown to suppress public anger over the economic downturn.
Daisy Sindelar in Prague, based on reporting by RFE/RLs Belarus Service