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Belarus courts sentence dozens of protesters

COURTS in Belarus on Wednesday began sentencing dozens of protesters detained in an illegal protest denouncing President Alexander Lukashenko who is accused in the West of stifling human rights.

The ex-Soviet state’s opposition said the police round-up of demonstrators at an evening rally on Tuesday could signal an end to Lukashenko’s drive to improve relations with the West.
Lukashenko has particularly courted the 27-nation European Union since quarrelling with Russia last year over energy prices, but is at loggerheads with the United States over sanctions and human rights.
The Interior ministry said 70 protesters faced public order charges and courts began handing down sentences — fines or a few days in jail. A Reuters photographer said one court house was surrounded by riot police with access barred to all outsiders.
“This is, of course, a signal to the West that there will be no weakening of the regime in Belarus,” Alexander Milinkevich, the opposition’s most prominent leader, told Reuters.
Police on Tuesday surrounded hundreds of demonstrators in a central square, broke them up into small groups and chased and beat them before bundling dozens into waiting vehicles.
Eighteen detainees were released within hours, among them a television crew from Lithuania, a Belarussian journalist, beaten while taken into custody, and Polish and Ukrainian nationals.
Milinkevich, one of two opposition candidates who ran against the president in 2006, said the change was probably dictated by strong objections to Western sanctions, particularly US measures against oil products firm Belneftekhim.
The EU last year had cautiously praised Belarus for using restraint at opposition rallies  and expressed hope a September parliamentary election could lead to improved relations.
But the US ambassador left Belarus this month after being urged to go by authorities angry at what they saw as additional punitive measures against Belneftekhim.
Ambassador Karen Stewart, who described her departure as temporary, denied the original measures — including a ban on dealings with the firm — had been extended.
The US embassy has since stopped issuing visas and complied with a request to cut diplomatic staff in Minsk.
Belarus’s intelligence agency, still known by its Soviet-era KGB initials, said on Tuesday a spy ring working on behalf of Washington and focused on the embassy had been exposed.
Stewart and other US officials have linked a resumption in dialogue to the release of Alexander Kozulin — Belarus’s most prominent detainee seen in the West as a political prisoner. Other detainees have been released in recent months.
Kozulin, who also ran against Lukashenko in 2006, was jailed for five years for helping stage four days of protests against Lukashenko’s landslide re-election to a third term.
— Reuters.

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