Belarus opposition leader Andrei Sannikov jailed

Andrei Sannikov gestures in a guarded cage during a court hearing in Minsk, May 14, 2011 Sannikov was one of seven leaders arrested in December

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A high-profile opposition leader in Belarus has been jailed for five years on charges of organising mass protests after last year's presidential poll.

Andrei Sannikov, a former deputy foreign minister and co-founder of the Charter 97 group, had pleaded innocent.

Sannikov, 57, was one of seven presidential candidates detained at a rally in December after Alexander Lukashenko won a fourth term.

The EU and US condemned the crackdown and imposed sanctions on Mr Lukashenko.

He has been president of the former Soviet republic since 1994.

Sannikov was accused of organising "mass disturbances" by calling on people to take part in a protest march on 19 December and then leading it. Hundreds of opposition activists were detained at the demonstration.

Sannikov was convicted at a court in Minsk and will serve his sentence in a high-security prison.

Four other defendants were handed prison terms of up to three-and-a-half years, the Agence France-Presse news agency reports.

Travel ban

The opposition said Mr Lukashenko's re-election with nearly 80% of the vote was fraudulent. Western monitors described the poll as "flawed".

Sannikov won most votes among the nine opposition candidates, taking 2.43%.

Belarus has come under increasing political and economic pressure in the past months, with the United States and European Union slapping harsh sanctions on the government.

President Lukashenko and other top officials have been forbidden from travelling to the West.

The country's central bank has been running out of hard currency, with many analysts predicting a steep devaluation of its ruble.

Although President Lukashenko governs what is considered Europe's strictest authoritarian state, the BBC's David Stern says many Belarusians do support him, in part in gratitude for the stability and law and order that he provides.

That came under severe pressure last month, when a massive explosion ripped through a metro station in Minsk, killing 12 people and injuring more than 200.

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