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West threatens more sanctions as Belarus hits opposition with tough sentences

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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.

Andrei Sannikov, a former deputy foreign minister and runner-up in disputed December polls overwhelmingly won by Lukashenko, was one of 700 people, including seven presidential contenders, subsequently arrested and charged with organizing election night protests against alleged vote-rigging. His wife, independent journalist Irina Khalip, was finally freed from detention Monday after being sentenced to two years' probation for taking part in the rally. Four other presidential candidates, and scores of other opposition activists, remain on trial.

"The United States condemns the conviction of presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov and other democratic activists in Belarus," acting State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Saturday. "We consider the five presidential candidates ... and other activists, who are being tried after being arrested as part of the crackdown related to the December 19 presidential elections, to be political prisoners."

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