Crackdowns on Minsk protests that included Vitaly Rymashevsky(L) and Vladimir Neklyayev were condemned [Reuters]

A Belarusian court has handed down suspended two-year prison terms to two opposition politicians who ran against Alexander Lukashenko, the country's president, in last year's election.

Vladimir Neklyayev, 65, and Vitaly Rymashevsky, 36, were found guilty on Friday of "actions disrupting social order". Sentences for both were suspended by two years, the Frunze district court of Minsk ruled.

Last week, leading opposition figure Andrei Sannikov of the Charter 97 rights group, who also stood against Lukashenko, was sentenced to five years in a high-security prison on the more serious charge of organising mass disturbances.

Neklyayev linked his relatively soft sentence to pressure from the West and popular support.

"If it was not for the support from the US and the European Union, I would not be standing here in front of you but would rather sit (in a KGB prison) answering the question about who I am spying for," he told reporters. "This is (also) a result of people's solidarity."

Sentences criticised

Two more former presidential candidates, Nikolai Statkevich and Dmitry Uss, are also on trial over the protest in Minsk that followed Lukashenko's re-election, which was criticised by Western observers as fraudulent.

The police crackdown on the Minsk demonstration, in which hundreds of opposition activists and dissidents were rounded up, was condemned by rights groups and Western governments, putting Belarus in political isolation at a time of economic hardship.

The United States and the European Union have since blacklisted Lukashenko, in power since 1994, imposing sanctions including a travel ban on him and 150 of his associates in power.

Even Russia, Belarus's traditional ally which Minsk hopes will give it a $3 billion loan to stem a currency crisis, criticised the "harsh" prison sentences handed down to opposition leaders.

The foreign ministers of France, Germany and Poland said on Friday the EU was planning further sanctions against Belarus "targeting specific companies... financing the regime".

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies