[JURIST] Belarus's Minsk City Court on Saturday sentenced former presidential candidate Andrey Sannikau [Free Belarus Now profile] to a five-year maximum security prison sentence for organizing protests following the re-election [JURIST report] of President Alexander Lukashenko [BBC profile, JURIST news archive] in December 2010. Lukashenko reportedly won 80 percent of the vote, while Sannikau was second with a distant 2.5 percent [RFE/RL report]. Currently, four other presidential candidates are awaiting trial, while one was released in January [JURIST report], and another has fled Belarus to seek asylum in the Czech Republic. All of the detained protesters [Belarusian Helsinki Committee] are accused of violating Article 293 of the Criminal Code of Belarus, for inciting and participating in riots. In addition to maintaining that the election was rigged, Sannikau alleged confessions he gave before the trial were extracted under torture and threats to his family. Both the US [press statement] and the European Union (EU) [press release, PDF] have condemned Sannikau's conviction and the ongoing trials, with the US considering all those arrested on December 19 as "political prisoners" and promising to consider Belarus' human rights violations in future dealings with the nation.
Hundreds of activists were also arrested after protesting Lukashenko's 2006 presidential win, including opposition candidate Alexander Milinkevich [JURIST reports]. While Lukashenko has since sought to improve his country's ties with western nations, the US State Department has historically criticized Belarus' human rights record [JURIST report]. The UN General Assembly Third Committee and the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights [JURIST reports] have similarly denounced Belarus for human rights abuses. In 2008, the Belarus KGB detained at least 16 journalists [JURIST report] and searched their homes and offices for materials that allegedly libel Lukashenko. Also in 2008, Belarusian district courts sentenced at least 55 demonstrators [JURIST report], including journalists, for participating in a banned "Freedom Day" rally in Minsk to protest the presidency of Lukashenko. An opposition activist who was critical of Lukashenko during his 2006 presidential campaign was sentenced [JURIST report] to three years in jail in 2008 by a Belarusian court after being arrested for making comments that Lukashenko was connected to the disappearances of opposition leaders Yuri Zakharenko, Viktor Gonchar and Anatoly Krasovsky.