Belarusian opposition leader sentenced to 11 years in prison

MOSCOW – A Belarusian court on Monday sentenced opposition figure Maria Kolesnikova to 11 years in prison, another sign that President A...


MOSCOW – A Belarusian court on Monday sentenced opposition figure Maria Kolesnikova to 11 years in prison, another sign that President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko is continuing a relentless crackdown on dissent in the wake of harsh elections. contested.

Ms Kolesnikova and her colleague Maksim Znak, a lawyer, have been charged with extremism, conspiracy to seize power illegally and endanger state security. The trial was held in the capital, Minsk, behind closed doors, and neither investigators nor witnesses were made public. Both defendants denied any wrongdoing and said the verdict was politically motivated.

Mr Znak, who like Ms Kolesnikova is a leading member of a coordinating council organized by opponents of Mr Lukashenko, was sentenced to 10 years in prison in a maximum security penal colony.

“This verdict is illegal and unfounded,” said the couple’s lawyer Yevgeny Pylchenko, announcing an appeal. “It’s not based on evidence. During the trial, neither their guilt, nor even the commission of the crimes charged, was confirmed.

Last year, Ms Kolesnikova became one of Belarus’ most prominent opposition leaders when she decided to run after a prominent banker, Viktor Babariko, whose campaign she led, saw himself banned from showing up and was thrown in jail. She eventually gave her support to Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who entered the race after her husband, a prominent video blogger, was also arrested and banned from running.

In an election denounced by opponents and the West as a sham, Lukashenko claimed to have won a sixth consecutive term in August 2020, triggering months of protest. He has exercised unwavering control over Belarus since his first election to the presidency in 1994, including over the judiciary.

“Today our courts have failed the most basic test,” Aleksandr Kolesnikov, Ms Kolesnikova’s father, told reporters and supporters outside the court. He said the verdict was a “signal” that the government did not intend to change its approach towards those who disagree with it.

Ms Kolesnikova, 39, was a flautist and cultural curator who studied baroque music in Stuttgart, Germany, before returning to Minsk to establish a cultural center and get involved in politics. Mr. Znak, 40, is a prominent arbitration lawyer who lived in Oklahoma as a student.

Last year Ms Kolesnikova aligned herself with Ms Tikhanovskaya and Veronika Tsepkalo, whose husband, Valery, was also excluded from the poll and fled Belarus before polling day. Rejected by the dictator as “poor”, the three women donned white and red outfits, attracting tens of thousands of supporters to their pre-election rallies.

In the days following the disputed vote, Ms Tikhanovskaya and Ms Tsepkalo both traveled abroad under murky circumstances. Ms. Kolesnikova was kidnapped by masked men on September 8 last year and taken to the country’s border with Ukraine, but she resisted attempts to forcibly deport her by tear up his passport, jumping out of the car she was in and returning to Belarusian territory.

“We demand the immediate release of Maria & Maksim, who are guilty of nothing,” said Ms Tikhanovskaya, who has become the leader of the opposition to exile and now lives in Lithuania, wrote on Twitter. “It is terror against the Belarusians who dare to stand up to the regime.

Despite 11 months behind bars, Ms Kolesnikova sought to project an indomitable spirit, sending positive letters from prison to relatives and supporters. When she appeared in court on Monday morning, in a glass cage with Mr. Znak, she twisted her handcuffed hands to form the shape of a heart, one of her signature messages during the campaign. ‘last summer.

In the days leading up to the start of her trial last month, Ms Kolesnikova wrote that authorities had offered to negotiate her release if she sought a pardon or appeared repentant on state television. She said she rejected the offer because she was innocent.

No one except the lawyers was able to be present when Ms. Kolesnikova and Mr. Znak made their closing remarks last week. But according to the collaborators of Mr. Babariko, whose Mrs. Kolesnikova led the campaign, she spoke at length about “the moral choice, the conscience, the respect and the love of the people” and called for the implementation of the state. of law in his country.

“No matter how the word ‘democracy’ sounds on television, we cannot ignore what is written about our country in the Constitution,” she reportedly said.

It is estimated that tens of thousands of opposition supporters fled Belarus after the crackdown that began last year. The government’s retaliatory campaign only intensified during this period. In May, authorities sent a fighter plane to bring down a plane carrying a prominent blogger, Roman Protasevich, then stopped him. Authorities stopped law graduate after delivering a graduation speech in July calling for respect for the rule of law.

And in August, the government banned athletes from participating in overseas sporting events after a 24-year-old sprinter criticized his coaches at the Olympics this summer, generating an international scandal.

“The persecution and imprisonment of Maria Kolesnikova and Maksim Znak is aimed at destroying the hopes of millions of people on whose behalf they have spoken – a whole generation of Belarusians working to ensure that peaceful change takes place in their country and that human rights are respected. inside, ”Bruce Millar, Amnesty International’s deputy director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, said in a statement.



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