A court in Belarus has found opposition figure, Maria Kolesnikova guilty of conspiring to seize power, sentencing her to 11 years in prison.
The 39-year-old was arrested a year ago after leading mass protests against President Alexander Lukashenko. Kolesnikova’s lawyer Maxim Znak was also sentenced on national security charges and handed a 10 year prison sentence.
As one of the three women who ran a campaign to challenge President Alexander Lukashenko in last year’s disputed election, Kolesnikova remains the only leader currently residing in Belarus.
In September, she was snatched by unidentified masked men in the streets of Minsk and driven away in a van. The men were later identified as KGB agents who drove her to the Ukrainian border.
Along with her lawyer, she has been in custody for 12 months after ripping her passport to resist being deported.
Throughout 2020, Kolesnikova was a vocal critic of Lukashenko and his authoritarian regime, supporting the persistent protests that erupted across the country.
A video from inside the court released by Russian media showed Kolesnikova smiling and making a heart with her hands – a gesture she often made at protest rallies.
Kolesnikova’s lawyer Maxim Znak addressed the public before the sentence was read out:
“Dear spectators, we are happy to see you.”
Kolesnikova’s father Alexander said publicly, “For many, Maria has become an example of resilience and the fight between good and evil. I’m proud of her.”
Amnesty International called the latest ruling “a disaster for freedom of expression in Belarus” and “designed to crush the hopes” of Belarusians.
“We call for the immediate release of Maria, Maxim and hundreds of other people who have been detained in Belarus solely for exercising their human rights,” Bruce Millar, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia said in a statement.
“The international community must do all it can to put pressure on Lukashenko’s government to stop the barbaric crackdown on civil society and dissent in Belarus.”
The EU has publicly condemned the sentencing as a “blatant disrespect” of rights, while Britain has described the ruling as an “assault on the defenders of democracy.”
The US State Department called the sentencings “further evidence of the regime’s total disregard for the human rights and fundamental freedoms of the people of Belarus”.
“Kalesnikava and Znak deserved a transparent judicial determination of the bogus charges levied against them, which they did not receive,” the statement reads.
Kolesnikova was a flute player in the Belarus’ philharmonic orchestra, and a recipient of this year’s International Women of Courage Award. She became a symbol of the protest movement last year along with opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and Veronika Tsepkalo.
Tikhanovskaya replaced her husband as a running candidate for presidency when he was jailed, and believes she is the true winner of last August’s presidential election. Both Tikhanovskaya and Tsepkalo have since fled Belarus to EU countries.
Image: BelTA pool photo