MINSK, Belarus (AP) — The detained leader of the most prominent human rights group in Belarus faces up to seven years in jail for helping political prisoners and government critics in the authoritarian ex-Soviet nation, the group said Friday.
Police detained Ales Belyatsky of the Vesna group outside his home in the capital, Minsk, on Thursday, and also conducted searches in his apartment, country house and the group's offices.
The U.S. Embassy in Minsk condemned Belyatsky's detention as "another, unfortunate sign of Belarus' self-isolation and further deviation from European standards and principles."
Belyatsky faces up to seven years in jail on charges of "concealment of income," the group said in a statement. It said Belyatsky received large amounts of cash in neighboring Lithuania from the group's Western donors since his group was officially barred from receiving grants in Belarus.
The charges against Belyatsky "are punishment and revenge for many years of his work as a human rights advocate," the statement posted on the group's website said.
The group criticized Lithuanian authorities for providing information on Belyatsky's activities to Belarusian police, saying their cooperation "created favorable conditions for initiating a criminal case" against him.
But a Lithuanian Justice Ministry official said the country wasn't aware about the intentions of neighboring Belarus to use the information against an opposition member. The ministry said it will now cut off communication channels that were used to provide legal information to Belarus.
"These agreements were quite convenient in criminal or civil cases, but now that we see that they use the data for political purposes, we stop providing information," Vice Justice Minister Tomas Vaitkevicius said.
Since 1996, Vesna has provided legal assistance to thousands of Belarusians who were fined, arrested or imprisoned for criticizing President Alexander Lukashenko's authoritarian policies.
In 2003, authorities terminated the group's official registration for reporting violations during the presidential elections.
Vesna has also been active in reporting on the police crackdown on a recent series of peaceful rallies that have reflected mounting public discontent against Lukashenko whom the West has dubbed "Europe's last dictator."
The German government's human rights commissioner, Markus Loening, demanded Belyatsky's immediate release. Germany "condemns in the strongest terms this political abuse of criminal law," Loening said in a statement.
Lukashenko, who has ruled the nation of 10 million people for nearly 17 years, won another term in December's election that was criticized by international observers.