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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lukashenko Opponent On Trial for Corruption

MINSK, Belarus -- Former Prime Minister Mikhail Chigir, a leading opponent of Belarus' authoritarian president, went on trial Wednesday on charges of corruption that the opposition says were fabricated.

About 100 people, including the ambassadors of France, Italy and Germany, packed into the Minsk city court for the trial's opening, and 200 other people who tried to get in were left outside.

Judge Alexander Vasilevich adjourned the trial until Thursday after hearing defense appeals for a larger courtroom because of high public interest in the case.

Chigir was arrested in April 1999 after he registered in opposition-organized elections banned by President Alexander Lukashenko. The European Union and the Council of Europe protested the arrest, and Chigir was released in November.

Chigir is accused of embezzlement and negligence while prime minister.

"I have never felt, I don't feel and I will never feel myself guilty," Chigir told reporters before the trial. "The case is political."

Chigir instead accused the presidential property management office and companies founded by high-ranking officials of committing the crimes pinned on him.

Chigir resigned as prime minister in 1996 to protest Lukashenko's rewriting of the Belarussian Constitution to extend the president's term until 2001 and call off presidential elections that had been scheduled for May 1999.

Opposition leaders warned Tuesday that they may boycott parliamentary elections in the fall if Lukashenko bars efforts to amend election law and blocks opposition access to media.

The opposition also announced plans Tuesday to stage mass rallies to press for a dialogue with Lukashenko, Reuters reported.

But a senior official said the president had no intention of opening a discussion with his opponents.

"The president will not take part in talks. He should be above that process," said Lukashenko's deputy chief of staff, Ivan Pashkevich. "I am ready to conduct such talks round the clock. But for what purpose? Real politics can proceed only through elections to parliament and not on street corners."

The Coordination Council, a group of seven parties, said the first protest would take place March 15, Constitution Day.