Belarus' leading human rights activist was convicted of tax evasion and sentenced to 4.5 years in prison on Thursday at a trial condemned by U.S. and European Union officials as politically motivated.
Ales Belyatsky heads Vesna, the ex-Soviet nation's most prominent rights group which actively reported on alleged irregularities in last December's presidential election and the ensuing police crackdown on protests.
The election, in which authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko won another term, was criticized by international observers and sparked a massive protest rally that was violently dispersed by police who arrested some 700 people, including seven of the nine presidential candidates.
Belyatsky's group has since provided legal assistance to those arrested, helped them pay fines and offered help to their families.
The 49-year old Belyatsky, who has been in jail since his arrest in August, looked tired but composed while listening to the judge reading out Thursday's verdict. Some in the audience shouted "Shame."
"My case is politically motivated," Belyatsky said in his final statement. "I'm fighting for human rights, but now I feel like a voice crying in the desert."
Belyatsky was charged with tax evasion after Polish and Lithuanian authorities provided data about his accounts in those countries. Vesna said Belyatsky had to use the accounts to get cash from donors because Belarusian law left him no other option to receive funds needed to help victims of political repression. Polish and Lithuanian governments later apologized for giving Belarusian prosecutors the data on Belyatsky's accounts.
The U.S. Embassy in Minsk strongly condemned Thursday's verdict and urged Belarus "to release Belyatsky and all political prisoners immediately and unconditionally, remove any barriers to their future participation in public life, and cease its campaign against critics of the government."
The European Union's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele deplored the sentence as "clearly politically motivated" and "a symbol of the ever intensifying crackdown on civil society in the country." "We call on Belarus to immediately and unconditionally release and rehabilitate Ales Byalyatski and all other political prisoners in Belarus," they said in a statement.
Poland, which holds the rotating EU presidency, said the verdict "confirms that the current regime does not observe the basic U.N. standards on civic rights and freedoms."
Warsaw urged authorities in Belarus to immediately release Belyatsky and "other political prisoners." Without that, the Polish foreign ministry warned, "the European Union's dialogue with Belarus will not be possible."
Garri Pogonyailo, another Belarusian rights activist, described the verdict as a punishment for Vesna's activities in defending victims of political repression.
"That's the authorities' revenge for Belyatsky's rights activities," he told The Associated Press. "Lukashenko wants to show what happens to those who are involved in defending human rights."
United Nations experts warned Thursday that Belarus has moved even further to clamp down on basic freedoms with a new law that was passed last month.
The legislation further boosts the already sweeping powers of the secret police, still known as the KGB, allowing its officers to break into residences and offices without a warrant. It also bans political and civil society groups from receiving foreign assistance and from holding money in foreign banks.
"When defenders are allowed to associate but cannot effectively seek, receive or utilize funding resources, the right to freedom of association becomes void," said Margaret Sekaggya, a U.N. expert on defenders of human rights.
AP writers Monika Scislowska in Warsaw, Poland, Frank Jordans in Geneva and Raf Casert in Brussels contributed to this report.