From The Street To The Courtroom, First Anti-Lukashenka Protester Jailed

Last updated (GMT/UTC): 17.02.2011 14:16

Following a trial that lasted just a few hours, a Minsk court has convicted opposition activist Vasil Parfyankou to four years in prison for participating in a mass demonstration in December.

Natalia Radzina, a journalist who faces similar charges but has been released on her own recognizance, told RFE/RL outside the courtroom on February 17 that she was shocked.

“I can say that this is an extraordinarily brutal sentence, and I don’t believe that this brutality is justified. I am in shock. What else can I say?” Radzina said.

Parfyankou faced a maximum sentence of eight years under the charges, which stemmed from a postelection demonstration in Minsk on December 19 that was brutally dispersed by police. Several of the candidates who ran against incumbent President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and some 700 hundred demonstrators were detained.
Special Report: Belarus Crackdown

As many as 50 alleged demonstrators remain in custody or under house arrest and will likely face charges similar to Parfyankou’s.

The 27-year-old Parfyankou has been an activist for about a decade and is known for his role in protecting a Soviet-era mass grave at Kurapaty in 2001-02, when activists maintained a round-the-clock vigil to prevent the site from being bulldozed for a new highway. He has previously served short jail stints for his activism and this may have been a factor in his harsh sentence.

The small courtroom was full to overflowing and many opposition supporters and activists were unable to enter the nominally open trial. Prosecutors presented grainy video that purported to show Parfyankou jabbing a wooden plank into an already broken window.

The defendant admitted that he had gotten caught up in the moment, but denied accusations that he struck the government building more than 60 times or caused significant damage.

Former presidential candidate Vital Rymasheuski told RFE/RL after the verdict that the day’s proceedings show the government’s intentions.

“You can’t say this trial was objective. Such a speedy trial does not allow for the possibility of getting well acquainted with the case or mounting a real defense. And the fact that the verdict was brought down based on this article confirms what I have already said. Unfortunately, the government remains set on its course of tough actions against the entire democratic community. This will lead to a dead end for the government itself,” Rymasheuski said.

Western Criticism

During the trial, prosecutors charged that some opposition presidential candidates incited the demonstrators to violence, possibly indicating that those leaders could face harsher charges.

Parfyankou’s trial comes despite mounting criticism from Western governments and human rights activists over Belarus’s crackdown in the wake of the election. The United States and the European Union have already imposed sanctions against Belarus and stepped up support for the opposition there. The New York-based NGO Freedom House has issued a statement saying the crackdown and arrests “reflect an insecure, paranoid leader who senses his time is running out.”

The Belarusian Foreign Ministry issued a statement on February 16 saying a decision in December to close down the Minsk mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is “final.”

EU foreign affairs head Catherine Ashton and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a joint statement condemning the decision. “The elections and their aftermath -- particularly the continuing detention of presidential candidates and new detentions and raids targeting the media -- represent a step backward in the development of democratic governance in Belarus.”

Belarus’s Justice Ministry has rescinded the licenses of four defense attorneys. Two of them defended journalist Iryna Khalip, the wife of opposition presidential candidate Andrej Sannikau. Sannikau remains in jail and Khalip is under house arrest on charges stemming from the December 19 protest.

The third attorney worked for jailed former presidential candidate Ales Mikahlevich, and the fourth is the mother of the third.

Human rights activist Lyudmila Hraznova was among those who were not admitted into the courtroom. She told RFE/RL that she fears Parfyankou’s trial is only the start.

“This is, of course, just the beginning. But ensuing trials will use this beginning as a template. So this is a symptomatic beginning, a symptomatic trial. I have no optimistic hopes,” Hraznova said.

This story was reported by RFE/RL’s Belarus Service from Minsk and written by Robert Coalson in Prague