The United States is accusing the Belarus government of "flagrant abuse" of its judicial system in the prosecution of opposition figure Mikhail Marinich. The former government minister went on trial Thursday on charges including the theft of U.S. embassy computers, an allegation the State Department denies.
The United States has been a persistent critic of the human rights record of Belarus under President Alexander Lukashenko.
But it is using perhaps its strongest language to date in condemning the prosecution of Mikhail Marinich, who went on trial in Minsk Thursday on charges including the illegal possession of a pistol and the theft of computers belonging to the U.S. embassy.
Mr. Marinich, a former international economics minister who joined the political opposition in 2001, has been in custody since his arrest by security agents last April, and could face up to six years in jail if convicted of the alleged offenses.
The accused man's son told reporters Mr. Marinich maintains his innocence and considers the charges against him fabricated, while his lawyer said the gun found at his home had been planted.
Another opposition leader who recently faced prosecution, Anatoly Lebedko, says the charges against his colleague were conceived by President Lukashenko himself.
In a written statement, State Department Deputy Spokesman Adam Ereli said the allegedly stolen computer equipment, lent to a non-governmental business group headed by Mr. Marinich, has remained U.S. property at all times and that the United States makes no claims against him or his group.
Mr. Ereli said it is clear the Belarus government is prosecuting Mr. Marinich for his political views, as it has done to many other prominent opposition figures including Mr. Lebedko, who was charged with slander.
The spokesman said the United States strongly condemns what he termed the "flagrant abuse" of the Belarus court system to "persecute" citizens for their political beliefs.
He called on the government in Minsk to promptly release Mr. Marinich and others who have been detained, charged and convicted on "spurious charges."
President Lukashenko has ruled Belarus with an increasingly authoritarian hand since taking power in 1994, stifling dissent and independent media and boosting his authority through elections international observers says were marred by fraud.
The United States, in coordination with the European Union, earlier this month imposed travel restrictions against Belarusian officials implicated in election abuses.
In October, President Bush signed the Belarus Democracy Act approved by Congress. Among other things it authorizes U.S. aid to independent media outlets and political groups in Belarus, and bars all aid and loans to the Lukashenko government, except for provision of humanitarian or medical assistance.