MINSK — A Belarussian journalist who was arrested during post-poll protests and risked losing her son to child protection authorities went on trial Wednesday in the latest move against the opposition.
Irina Khalip risks up to three years in prison if found guilty of disrupting social order, as five former presidential candidates including her husband Andrei Sannikov also face sentences of three to 15 years.
She has spent months under house arrest and the watch of security service agents following her time in KGB prison and now fears losing custody over her three-year old son Danik because he has been left without both parents.
Khalip pleaded not guilty after two guards brought her to the small courtroom packed with spectators that included her parents and several US and EU diplomats, an AFP correspondent said in court.
"I did everything I could to help my husband," an emotional Khalip told the court. "I did not urge people out onto the streets, I spoke for myself and my husband."
The journalist is a Minsk staffer for Moscow-based opposition Novaya Gazeta paper. Her last report was from the scene of her detention.
"I am not guilty, I was carrying out my journalistic duties and did this well. I did not desert my husband and things were easier for him with me," she added.
She was initially facing 15 years in jail together with her husband on the charge of mass rioting, which was later softened to "organising actions disrupting social order".
The court rejected a motion to annul the house arrest of Khalip, who left her apartment for the first time since her transfer from prison on January 29.
Khalip's parents, who took care of the jailed couple's son Danik, were notified late last year that the youngster may be put in an orphanage, in what was seen as an attempt to force Khalip to testify against herself and other members of the opposition.
The parents managed to secure guardianship over the boy and Khalip was reunited with her son after authorities moved her from the prison.
The court on Wednesday rejected an appeal to end her house arrest, which does not permit her going outside or communicating with anyone other than immediate family, with two security service agents always present in her flat.
Trials also commenced Wednesday for former candidates Nikolai Statkevich and Dmitry Uss, both of whom are facing 15-year jail terms for allegedly inciting an armed "mob" to damage property and "seize the government building" in Minsk.
The European Union has ostracised Lukashenko since the December 19 election, applying sanctions to members of his inner circle and ending the cautious rapprochement attempted in the months leading up to the election.
A total of 55 people are being prosecuted in connection with the protests, according to human rights group Vesna.
Five, including former candidate Ales Mikhalevich, have fled the country, while 11 have been convicted and sentenced to prison terms up to four years.
The European Parliament meanwhile in a letter urged the International Ice Hockey Federation to bar Belarus from hosting the world championship in 2014 until the regime frees all political prisoners.
Any such move would be a massive blow for the ice hockey-mad Lukashenko, who frequently appears on the rink in full protective gear.
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