Belarus opposition figure and protest leader sentenced to 11 years in jail

Opposition leader Maria Kolesnikova at an anti-government demonstration on August 23, 2020 in Minsk, Belarus.

(CNN)A Belarusian court on Monday sentenced Maria Kolesnikova, a prominent opposition figure who led mass street protests against President Alexander Lukashenko, to 11 years in prison, the latest move in a widespread crackdown on government critics following a contested election last year.

Kolesnikova and another opposition activist, Maxim Znak, were charged with extremism and conspiring to "seize state power in an unconstitutional way" in a trial held in the capital Minsk behind closed doors, Belarusian state media Belta reported.
Znak, who is also a key member of the coordination council formed by opponents of Lukashenko's authoritarian government, was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
    Kolesnikova, a musician-turned-activist, was one of three women who joined forces last year to front the opposition's campaign against Lukashenko after prominent male opposition candidates were barred from the presidential race.
      The trio were the face of a protest movement that sent tens of thousands of Belarusians onto the streets to demand political change during the country's election. The demonstrators, as well as independent observers, alleged that the vote was rigged to extend Lukashenko's 27-year rule.
      Opposition supporters protest the disputed presidential elections results in Minsk on August 23, 2020.
      President Lukashenko, who denied electoral fraud, has faced sanctions from the US and other Western governments since claiming victory and launching a crackdown against opponents last year.
      Kolesnikova was arrested last September and taken to the border, where she was ordered to leave the country. Instead, she reportedly ripped up her passport, refusing to be forced into exile.
        "We demand the immediate release of Maria & Maksim, who aren't guilty of anything. It's terror against Belarusians who dare to stand up to the regime. We won't stop until everybody is free in Belarus," Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a Belarusian opposition leader who ran for president and led protests with Kolesnikova, said on Twitter Monday, after the verdict was announced.
        Tikhanovskaya, who stood in for her husband as an opposition candidate after he was imprisoned in the run-up to the vote, fled to neighboring Lithuania with her children last August after contesting preliminary election results that handed Lukashenko a landslide win.
        Tikhanovskaya called Kolesnikova and Znak "heroes for Belarusians."
        Exiled opposition politician Svetlana Tikhanovskaya makes her first public appearance in Vilnius, Lithuania in August 2020 after fleeing Belarus.
        "The regime wants us to see them crushed & exhausted. But look - they are smiling & dancing. They know - we will release them much earlier than these 11 years. Their terms shouldn't frighten us -- Maksim and Maria wouldn't want this," she added, sharing a video of the two opposition leaders standing in a glass cage for defendants in court.