MOSCOW – A Belarusian court on Monday sentenced Maria Kolesnikova, a leading opposition figure who tried to run for president last year, to 11 years in prison, another sign that President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko is taking relentless crackdown on dissidents. opinions after a highly contested election.
Ms. Kolesnikova and her colleague Maksim Znak, a lawyer, were charged with extremism, conspiracy to illegally seize power and harming state security. The trial took place in the capital Minsk, behind closed doors, and neither the investigators nor the witnesses were made public. Both defendants denied the offense 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 high-security penal colony.
“This verdict is illegal and unfounded,” said the couple’s lawyer Yevgeny Pylchenko, who announced an appeal. “It is not based on evidence. During the trial, neither their guilt nor even committing the accused was crimes confirmed.”
Ms. Kolesnikova became one of Belarus’ most prominent opposition leaders last year when she decided to run after a prominent banker, Viktor Babariko, whose campaign she led, was barred from participating and thrown in jail. In the end, she threw her support behind Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who entered the race after her husband, a prominent video blogger, was also arrested and banned from participating.
- Belarus in the spotlight. The emergency landing of a commercial flight on Sunday is seen by several countries as a state hijacking called for by the strong president, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko.
- Election results and protest. It came less than a year after Belarusians faced violent police crackdowns as they protested the results of an election derided by many Western governments as a sham.
- Forced plane landing. The Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania, was diverted to Minsk with the aim of detaining Roman Protasevich, a 26-year-old dissident journalist.
- Who is Roman Protasevich? In a video released by the government, Mr Protasevich confessed to taking part in organizing “mass unrest” last year, but friends say the confession was made under duress.
In an election denounced as a sham by opponents and the West, Mr Lukashenko claimed to have won for the sixth consecutive term in August 2020, sparking months of protest. He has exercised iron control over Belarus since he first became president in 1994, including over the judiciary.
“Today, our courts failed the most basic test,” Aleksandr Kolesnikov, Ms. Kolesnikova’s father, told journalists and supporters outside the court. He said the verdict was a “signal” that the government had no intention of changing its approach to those who disagree.
Mrs. Kolesnikova, 39, was a flautist and cultural curator who studied Baroque music in Stuttgart, Germany, before returning to Minsk to set up a cultural center and engage in politics. Mr. Znak, 40, is a prominent arbitration attorney who once lived in Oklahoma as a student.
Last year, Mrs. Kolesnikova joins Mrs. Tikhanovskaya and Veronika Tsepkalo, whose husband, Valery, was also excluded from the vote and fled Belarus before election day. Rejected by the dictator as “poor things,” the three women donned white and red outfits and drew tens of thousands of supporters to their pre-election rallies.
In the days following the contested vote, Ms Tikhanovskaya and Ms Tsepkalo both went abroad in 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 evict her by tearing her passport, jumping out of the car she was in. and walk back to Belarusian territory.
“We demand the immediate release of Maria & Maksim, who are not guilty of anything,” Ms. Tikhanovskaya, who emerged as the opposition leader in exile and now lives in Lithuania, wrote on Twitter. “It is terror against Belarusians who dare to stand up to the regime.”
Despite 11 months behind bars, Ms. Kolesnikova tried to radiate an indomitable spirit by sending positive letters from prison to relatives and supporters. When she appeared in court 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 last summer’s campaign.
In the days before her trial began last month, Ms. Kolesnikova that authorities had offered to negotiate her release from custody if she asked for a pardon or appeared on state television in remorse. She said she declined the offer because she was innocent.
No one except the lawyers could be present when Ms Kolesnikova and Mr Znak made their closing remarks last week. But according to aides to Mr. Babariko, whose campaign Ms. Kolesnikova had led, she spoke at length about “moral choice, conscience, respect and love for people” and called for the rule of law to be introduced in her country.
“No matter how the word ‘democracy’ sounds on television, one cannot ignore what the constitution says about our country,” she said.
An estimated tens of thousands of opposition supporters have fled Belarus after the crackdown that began last year. The government’s campaign of retaliation has only intensified during that time. In May, authorities scrambled a fighter jet to shoot down a plane carrying a prominent blogger, Roman Protasevich, and then detain him. Authorities arrested a law graduate after she delivered a graduation speech in July calling for respect for the rule of law.
And in August, the government banned athletes from participating in sporting events abroad after a 24-year-old sprinter criticized her coaches during this summer’s Olympics, sparking an international scandal.
“The persecution and imprisonment of Maria Kolesnikova and Maksim Znak is intended to destroy the hopes of millions of people on whose behalf they spoke – an entire generation of Belarusians who strive for peaceful changes to take place in their country and for human rights to be respected in it.” Bruce Millar, Amnesty International’s deputy director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, said in a statement.