A campaign to win the release from prison of two Belarusian students charged with daubing anti-presidential slogans has been launched by pro-democracy forces in Minsk.
Alexei Shidlovsky, an 18-year- old journalism student at Belarus State University, and 16-year-old school pupil Vadim Labkovich, members of the youth wing of the Belarusian People's Front, have been held on remand since August when they were arrested several days after an incident in Stobsty, a town 50 miles west of Minsk.
State prosecutors say the two were members of a gang of young activists who daubed slogans criticising the country's dictatorial President Alexander Lukashenko, and raised the red and white Belarusian nationalist flag above the town mayor's office in place of the official republican flag.
If convicted on charges of hooliganism and insulting state symbols the pair face heavy fines and up to five years in prison.
The severity of the prospective sentences and intimidation of the two young men, and those close to them, has shocked members of the Belarusian opposition accustomed to the Lukashenko regime's human rights abuses.
The pair were held for ten days without being charged and access to lawyers was denied. No date has been set for a trial and the young men have yet to be brought before a court.
A decree signed by President Lukashenko last month extended the maximum period during which a suspect may be held in custody without charge from three to 30 days.
The decree, which took effect immediately, was designed to "combat terrorism and other dangerous crimes", official sources said. It also increased police powers to investigate and follow suspects.
Mr Labkovich, who lives with his mother, Yadviga, in Minsk, travelled to Stobsty after learning of his friend's arrest in a phone call from Mr Shidlovsky's distressed wife, but was arrested by police at the railway station.
It was only when Minsk city police arrived to search her apartment the next day that a distraught Mrs Labkovich discovered what had happened to her son.
"I'm worried about how this will affect Vadim's education and chances of going to university.
"I think everything has already been decided and I'm scared he will be sent to prison for years," she said.
Democracy activists believe Lukashenko wants to make an example of the two young activists and they are not expecting justice to be done.
Human rights activist Luba Luynevoi said: "Over the past year there has been a series of actions called "The City is Ours" where activists visit different towns and cities throughout Belarus to paint slogans such as "Free Belarus".
"The authorities are growing tired of this and I believe they are planning a show trial for these two young men."