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Belarus Opposition Leader Jailed for 5 Years

Former presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov sits in a cage during a court hearing in Minsk April 27, 2011.

Belarusian opposition leader Andrei Sannikov was sentenced to five years in prison Saturday after being convicted on charges of organizing mass protests following the country's disputed presidential elections last December.

The 57-year-old Sannikov was one of seven presidential candidates arrested on December 19 as thousands of people protested in Minsk after President Alexander Lukashenko won re-election.

Four other former presidential candidates are on trial in Belarus. The arrests and trials of those who either challenged Mr. Lukashenko or demonstrated against his disputed victory are part of a wider crackdown on those seen as opposing the authoritarian leader.

The United States condemned Sannikov's conviction and said it considers him and other detained candidates to be political prisoners.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the harsh sentences and ongoing trials are "clearly politically motivated." He called on Belarus to immediately release all political prisoners and end human rights violations against critics of the government.

The crackdown on the Minsk demonstration, which resulted in the arrests of hundreds of opposition activists and dissidents, has been condemned by human rights groups and Western governments.

President Lukashenko, who has ruled the former Soviet republic since 1994, won re-election in December with 80 percent of the vote, but international observers have said the election was flawed.