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West threatens more sanctions as Belarus hits opposition with tough sentences

President Alexander Lukashenko may face further isolation after a Belarusian court sentenced a former presidential candidate to five years in prison and put his wife on probation. Moscow may help economically, but on tough terms.

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Former presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov stands in a guarded cage during a court hearing in Minsk, Belarus, May 14. Sannikov, one of President Alexander Lukashenko's main political opponents, was sentenced on Saturday to five years in jail on a charge linked to a rally last December against the leader's re-election.

Julia Darashkevich/Reuters

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The US and European Union are threatening stepped-up sanctions against the increasingly isolated regime of Alexander Lukashenko after a Belarusian court sentenced a former presidential candidate to five years in prison Saturday and handed his wife a two-year suspended sentence Monday, in what Western governments are calling a wave of politically-motivated repression.

More sanctions would seem to be the last thing Belarus's tanking economy needs right now. The battered Belarusian ruble has lost more than 50 percent of its value since Russia unexpectedly declined to back a $3-billion bailout for Belarus last week, leading to massive price hikes for struggling consumers and hundreds of business closures around the country, experts say.

Mr. Lukashenko blamed his political opponents for an April terrorist attack that killed 14 people in a Minsk subway station, and ordered a wider crackdown on civil society activists and independent media, leaving little hope of reconciliation with Western governments and global financial institutions.

Moscow, which has continued to do business with Lukashenko, might yet throw its erstwhile ally a slender lifeline when Prime Minister Vladimir Putin visits Minsk on Thursday, but Russia is likely to demand a very high economic and political price for any aid, analysts say.

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