A Belarusian opposition leader was arrested Thursday and sentenced to 15 days in jail for taking part in an unsanctioned protest rally.
Police detained Alexander Milinkevich on Thursday, a day after a large rally and march in Minsk in opposition to authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko.
The rally had received official approval, but police declared a march to the rally site to be unsanctioned. Milinkevich said after his sentencing that he initially thought he was being charged in connection with that march.
But the court told him that police had declared the rally itself to be illegal, he said.
“I came to the meeting ... considering it to have been sanctioned. Police there did not say it had not been sanctioned. Therefore, I think the charge is not just and I do not consider myself guilty,” he said.
“This is a political sentence. The leaders of political parties are being put behind bars,” Milinkevich said.
The jailing appeared to sharply escalate authorities’ attempts to repress the opposition. Although an array of opposition figures has been arrested in recent weeks, most of them do not have the wide visibility of Milinkevich either at home or abroad.
In recent weeks, Milinkevich has made several trips to Western countries to seek support for the opposition.
At least three other prominent opposition figures were detained by police after the Wednesday evening demonstration. It had centered on denunciation of the Lukashenko government’s response to coping with the consequences of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident, which covered about a quarter of Belarus’ territory with radioactive fallout 20 years ago.
Vintsuk Vyachorka, leader of the Belarusian People’s Front organization and a former official in Milinkevich’s unsuccessful presidential campaign, was detained shortly after the rally and sentenced to 15 days in prison for taking part in an unauthorized procession.
Alexander Bukhvostov, leader of the opposition Trud Party, and Sergei Kalyakin, Milinkevich’s campaign manager, also were arrested, said Pavel Mazheika, Milinkevich’s spokesman.
Week of protests
Milinkevich spearheaded an unprecedented week of protests after the March 19 presidential elections in which Lukashenko won a third term with more than 80 percent of the vote, according to official results that the opposition alleges were severely fraudulent.
Those protests ended when police violently dispersed a crowd trying to march to a jail to demand the release of protesters who had been arrested after setting up a small tent camp on the central square in Minsk.
Another opposition presidential candidate, Alexander Kozulin, was arrested in that clash and remains in jail.
Since then, Milinkevich and his supporters have pushed to keep up the momentum of their drive against Lukashenko, whom Western countries often characterize as “Europe’s last dictator,” but the opposition has faced strong repression from authorities.
It was denied permission to use public halls in the city of Gomel this week for a planned conference challenging the government’s policy of resettling people in the Chernobyl fallout-affected zones. Milinkevich was denied permission to hold a public meeting with supporters in that city.