[JURIST] Belarusian district courts Wednesday sentenced at least 55 demonstrators for participating in a banned "Freedom Day" rally [BBC report] in Minsk to protest against Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko [official website; BBC profile]. "Freedom Day" first began as a celebration of Belarus' 1918 declaration of independence but has in recent years become a protest against Lukashenko's authoritarian policies. Some protesters, including journalists, were sentenced to three to 15 days in jail while others were fined as much as $500. Officials at the Belarus Interior Ministry said that a total of 70 people face charges of public disorder.
The US State Department severely criticized Belarus' human rights record [JURIST report] earlier this month, and Belarus opposition leaders suggested that Tuesday's protests will only worsen the country's relations with the West. The UN General Assembly Third Committee and the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights [JURIST reports] have similarly denounced Belarus for human rights abuses. Lukashenko has recently sought to improve his country's ties with western nations, but the US and the European Union have imposed sanctions on Belarus pending the release of all political prisoners, including opposition leader Alexander Kozulin [JURIST report]. Reuters has more. AP has additional coverage.