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Key opposition figure goes on trial in Belarus

Key Belarusian opposition figure Andrei Sannikov went on trial in Minsk Wednesday on charges of organizing anti-government protests last December. Sannikov is one of five former presidential candidates facing trial.

Belarusian opposition figure Andrei Sannikov

Sannikov founded the news-site Charter 97

A key figure in the Belarusian opposition went on trial in Minsk Wednesday on charges of organizing mass anti-government protests last December.

Andrei Sannikov, a former deputy prime minister who founded the opposition news-site Charter 97, faces 15 years in prison if convicted of the charges against him.

Although considered the leading opposition presidential candidate in Belarusian elections last December, Sannikov officially received only 2.5 percent of the vote. Longtime president Alexander Lukashenko won a fourth term in office with 80 percent of the vote.

The European Union and the United States have called the elections flawed.

The opposition subsequently took to the streets to protest the results, resulting in a violent crackdown in which seven of the nine presidential candidates - including Sannikov - were arrested.

Belarusian security forces detain protester

The Lukashenko government has cracked down on the opposition

Opposition on trial

Sannikov appeared in court in a metal cage and pleaded innocent to the charges against him. Although several of the other arrested candidates have been released pending trial, the Minsk court denied an appeal by Sannikov's attorneys that he be released on bail.

Earlier on Wednesday, one of Sannikov's close aides was sentenced to two years in jail for "violating public order" after the December election. Dmitry Bondarenko helped organize Sannikov's presidential campaign.

Sannikov's wife - Irina Khalip - remains under house arrest where she is monitored by two members of the Belarusian security service, the KGB. Khalip is a writer for the Russian opposition publication Novaya Gazeta.

More than 40 people arrested during the crackdown in December have been ordered to stand trial, including five of the detained presidential candidates.

Fears of crackdown

The trials come during a period of high political tensions in Belarus. Earlier in April, a bomb attack on a metro station in the capital, Minsk, sparked fears Lukashenko would use the incident to crackdown even harder on the already fractured opposition.

At least a dozen people were killed in the bombing. Lukashenko had subsequently called for a review of all politicians' statements as the investigation into the attack continues.

According to the opposition, Sannikov remains defiant.

"Sannikov has not been broken, he has written no letters of contrition to the dictator," wrote Charter 97's chief editor Natalya Radina.

Author: Spencer Kimball (Reuters, AFP)
Editor: Rob Turner

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