Belarus has convicted more than 400 in protest crackdown

Minsk (AFP) –


More than 400 people have so far been convicted in a sweeping crackdown in Belarus following mass protests against President Alexander Lukashenko's regime last year, prosecutors said on Wednesday.

The ex-Soviet country was gripped by months of demonstrations after Lukashenko claimed re-election in an August vote that the opposition and Western diplomats said was rigged.

As the demonstrations subsided, activists, protesters and journalists were prosecuted and the court system has since become a conveyor belt of guilty verdicts.

"To date, prosecutors have sent 468 criminal cases to courts against 631 people in connection with participation in illegal mass events and protests that grossly violate public order," the Prosecutor General's office said in a statement.

The suspects had publicly insulted, threatened and used violence against law enforcement officials, and damaged private property, according to the statement.

"More than 400 persons have already been convicted," it said.

Prosecutors listed examples of people they had pursued, including a 35-year-old man who had "posted insulting comments against law enforcement on the Odnoklassniki social network".

The highest sentence handed out was 10 years.

Last month, 16-year-old Mikita Zalatarou, who suffers from epilepsy, was sentenced to five years in juvenile prison for participating in mass riots.

The Viasna human rights group lists him as a political prisoner.

On Tuesday, popular blogger Ihar Losik, who was arrested last June on charges of preparing public disorder ahead of the August vote, ended a hunger strike and was placed in solitary confinement, his employer the US-funded Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe said.

Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus with an iron fist since 1994, has said that he withstood a "colour revolution" directed by the West, a reference to revolts that broke out in the early 2000s often in post-Soviet countries.

The EU imposed sanctions on the strongman and his allies after his security forces detained thousands in a crackdown that left several protesters dead and hundreds claiming torture in custody.

Lukashenko's main opponent in the elections, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who was forced into exile after the election, was set to testify to US Congress later on Wednesday.

She has called for mass protests to resume next Thursday to mark Freedom Day in Belarus on the anniversary of the country's declaration of independence in 1918.