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.
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.”
“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.
Viktor Babaryka, an ex-banker who had attempted to run against Lukashenko before he was arrested and imprisoned, said in a post on his Telegram channel Monday that Kolesnikova and Znak’s sentences would be appealed.
The US and several European countries have issued statements condemning the court ruling and continued efforts to silence government opponents.
“Regrettably, these sentencings are further evidence of the regime’s total disregard for the human rights and fundamental freedoms of the people of Belarus. Ms. Kalesnikava and Mr. Znak deserved a transparent judicial determination of the bogus charges levied against them, which they did not receive,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement Monday, calling the conviction “politically motivated” and “shameful.”
Last month, on the one-year anniversary of Belarus’ election, President Joe Biden issued a sweeping executive order targeting members of the Belarusian regime involved in the repression of human rights and democracy. On Monday, Blinken cited the order, reiterating the Biden administration’s calls for “Belarusian authorities to begin a genuine dialogue with the democratic opposition and members of civil society leading to free and fair elections under international observation.”
Germany on Monday promised to intensify pressure against the Belarusian regime if it does not change its behaviour towards civil rights, with the government spokesman Steffen Seibert calling the verdicts unjustified. UK Foreign Secretary Domnic Raab said Belarus was assaulting the defenders of democracy and freedom by jailing two opposition figures. The European Union has demanded the immediate and unconditional release of Maria Kolesnikova and Maxim Znak.