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West threatens more sanctions as Belarus hits opposition with tough sentences

President Alexander Lukashenko may face further isolation after a Belarusian court sentenced a former presidential candidate to five years in prison and put his wife on probation. Moscow may help economically, but on tough terms.

By Correspondent / May 16, 2011

Former presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov stands in a guarded cage during a court hearing in Minsk, Belarus, May 14. Sannikov, one of President Alexander Lukashenko's main political opponents, was sentenced on Saturday to five years in jail on a charge linked to a rally last December against the leader's re-election.

Julia Darashkevich/Reuters

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Moscow

The US and European Union are threatening stepped-up sanctions against the increasingly isolated regime of Alexander Lukashenko after a Belarusian court sentenced a former presidential candidate to five years in prison Saturday and handed his wife a two-year suspended sentence Monday, in what Western governments are calling a wave of politically-motivated repression.

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More sanctions would seem to be the last thing Belarus's tanking economy needs right now. The battered Belarusian ruble has lost more than 50 percent of its value since Russia unexpectedly declined to back a $3-billion bailout for Belarus last week, leading to massive price hikes for struggling consumers and hundreds of business closures around the country, experts say.

Mr. Lukashenko blamed his political opponents for an April terrorist attack that killed 14 people in a Minsk subway station, and ordered a wider crackdown on civil society activists and independent media, leaving little hope of reconciliation with Western governments and global financial institutions.

Moscow, which has continued to do business with Lukashenko, might yet throw its erstwhile ally a slender lifeline when Prime Minister Vladimir Putin visits Minsk on Thursday, but Russia is likely to demand a very high economic and political price for any aid, analysts say.

Andrei Sannikov, a former deputy foreign minister and runner-up in disputed December polls overwhelmingly won by Lukashenko, was one of 700 people, including seven presidential contenders, subsequently arrested and charged with organizing election night protests against alleged vote-rigging. His wife, independent journalist Irina Khalip, was finally freed from detention Monday after being sentenced to two years' probation for taking part in the rally. Four other presidential candidates, and scores of other opposition activists, remain on trial.

"The United States condemns the conviction of presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov and other democratic activists in Belarus," acting State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Saturday. "We consider the five presidential candidates ... and other activists, who are being tried after being arrested as part of the crackdown related to the December 19 presidential elections, to be political prisoners."

The EU said in a statement that it would immediately "consider new restrictive measures [sanctions] in all areas of cooperation," in addition to those leveled against Belarus after the crackdown began in December.

Mr. Sannikov's mother-in-law, Lutsina Khalip, says she is stunned by the harshness of punishments meted out to him and her daughter. "They are trying to destroy our family – it's sheer vindictiveness," she said by telephone from Minsk Monday.

For the past five months, she says, two agents of the KGB security service have been stationed around the clock outside her tiny apartment, and all her movements have been scrutinized. At one point, authorities threatened to take the couple's 4-year-old son, Danil, away from her on grounds that she was not "competent" to care for him, but desisted after an international outcry.

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