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Europe

Germany condemns conviction of Belarus opposition activist

Berlin condemned Belarus' 'disregard' for human rights Thursday after a court delivered a four-year sentence to opposition activist Vasily Parfenkov for participating in mass unrest in December's post-election rallies.

Alexander Lukashenko

Monitors say Lukashenko's re-election was rigged

Berlin has condemned a Belarus court's conviction of an opposition activist for participating in post-election rallies against President Alexander Lukashenko.

"The German government is demanding an immediate end to repression and litigation against oppositionists, as well as the release of all political prisoners," German Commissioner for Human Rights Markus Löning said Thursday.

Löning added that the court's decision confirmed that the European Union had done the right thing in reimposing sanctions against Belarus earlier this month.

A very speedy trial

A Minsk court on Thursday sentenced opposition activist Vasily Parfenkov to four years in prison in the first of dozens of trials following post-election protests.

The trial ended the same day it began, suggesting that the trials of the other 37 opposition activists, and of five former presidential candidates charged in connection with the protests, may be similarly brief.

Crowds protesting in Minsk

The presidential elections on December 19 were followed by massive protests

Parfenkov worked as a campaign manager for the main opposition candidate Vladimir Neklyayev, who took on autocratic President Alexander Lukashenko in the December 19 election. Lukashenko has ruled the ex-Soviet republic for 16 years and was re-elected, but opposition and international observers say the poll involved fraud.

Lukashenko closed the office of the OSCE European security body that monitored the election.

Arresting the opposition

Parfenkov was one of several hundred demonstrators rounded up by police during the protests that took place the night of the election.

He was charged with participating in mass unrest and damaging state property, a crime which carries a jail sentence of up to 15 years.

No cameras were allowed in the courtroom, which was mostly filled with plain-clothes police officers. One opposition activist said via text message that prosecutors claim Parfenkov was responsible for some 3,400 euros ($4,600) in damage when a glass window of the parliament building was shattered during the protests.

Parfenkov, speaking from inside a metal cage, reportedly told the court that he took part in the election protests but did not cause any damage.

Opposition leader Nekliayev told news agency AFP that Parfenkov's arrest was "a political decision."

"With this sentence, the authorities showed they do not care about Western sanctions or calls."

Vasily Parfenkov in metal cage in courtroom

Parfenkov was charged with participating in mass unrest

Lawyer suspensions

As the trial began, the Justice Ministry suspended four defense lawyers working for some of the activists, citing a series of "blatant violations." The ministry said the defendants would be "provided with legal support."

One of the lawyers, Vladimir Tolstik, said he would appeal the decision. He represented Irina Khalip, a prominent opposition journalist who was recently transferred from custody to house arrest.

"I categorically disagree with the ministry's decision," Tolstik said. "I defended her, and there have been no complaints to me from her or her father."

Suspending an attorney's license effectively bars him or her from practicing law, according to rights activist Garry Pogonyailo, a former defense lawyer himself. Defense lawyers appointed by the court "defend only formally, and very rarely show any enthusiasm" because they receive such little pay from the state, he told news agency AFP.

The United States and European Union have imposed a number of new sanctions on Belarus for its post-election crackdown on opposition.

Author: Andrew Bowen, David Levitz (AFP, Reuters)
Editor: Andreas Illmer

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