Belarus court gives opposition activists lengthy jail sentences

Two members of the opposition Coordination Council have been sentenced to 10 and 11 years in prison by authorities.

Maria Kolesnikova, the last remaining protest leader still in Belarus, gestures making a heart shape inside the defendants' cage during her verdict hearing on charges of undermining national security, conspiring to seize power and creating an extremist group, on September 6, 2021 in Minsk.
Maria Kolesnikova, the last remaining protest leader still in Belarus, gestures making a heart shape inside the defendants' cage during her verdict hearing [Ramil Nasibulin/BELTA/AFP]

A court in Belarus has sentenced two leading opposition activists to lengthy prison terms, the latest move in the relentless crackdown on dissent that Belarusian authorities unleashed in the wake of last year’s anti-government protests.

Maria Kolesnikova, a top member of the opposition Coordination Council, has been in custody since her arrest last September. A court in Minsk on Monday found her guilty of conspiring to seize power, creating an extremist organisation and calling for actions damaging state security and sentenced her to 11 years in prison.

Lawyer Maxim Znak, another leading member of the Coordination Council who faced the same charges, was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

A video from inside the courtroom on Monday showed the handcuffed pair grinning in the defendant’s cage before the ruling.

Maxim Znak, a member of the Coordination Council formed by the opposition to oversee efforts for a peaceful transition of power, attends a press conference [File: Sergei Gapon/AFP]

Kolesnikova and Znak went on trial behind closed doors, with their families only allowed to be present at the sentencing hearing.

“For many, Maria has become an example of resilience and the fight between good and evil. I’m proud of her,” Kolesnikova’s father, Alexander, told The Associated Press on Monday. “It’s not a verdict, but rather the revenge of the authorities.”

Key opposition activists

According to rights group Viasna, there were 659 political prisoners in Belarus as of Monday, including Znak and Kolesnikova.

Belarus was rocked by months of protests fuelled by President Alexander Lukashenko’s being awarded a sixth term after the August 2020 presidential vote that the opposition and the West denounced as a sham. He responded to the demonstrations with a massive crackdown that saw more than 35,000 people arrested and thousands beaten by police.

Kolesnikova, 39, who helped coordinate the opposition protests, had resisted authorities’ attempts to force her to leave the country.

In September 2020, Belarusian KGB agents drove Kolesnikova to the border between Belarus and Ukraine in an attempt to expel her. In the neutral zone between the two countries, Kolesnikova managed to rip up her passport, broke out of the car and walked back into Belarus, where she was immediately arrested.

A key opposition activist, she appeared at numerous political rallies and fearlessly walked up to lines of riot police and making her signature gesture – a heart formed by her hands. She spent years playing flute in the nation’s philharmonic orchestra after graduating from a conservatory in Minsk and studying Baroque music in Germany.

Kolesnikova joined forces with former English teacher Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who was running in place of her jailed husband Sergei, an opposition blogger, as the main candidate standing against Lukashenko, and Veronika Tsepkalo, wife of another potential top contender who had fled the country fearing arrest.

The three appeared together at colourful campaign events that were in stark contrast to Lukashenko’s Soviet-style gatherings.

Shortly after the election, Tsikhanouskaya left Belarus under pressure from the authorities and is currently in exile in Lithuania.

Just before the start of her trial last month, Kolesnikova said in a note from prison that authorities offered to release her from custody if she asked for a pardon and gives a repentant interview to state media. She insisted that she was innocent and rejected the offer.

Condemnation from Western officials

Western officials denounced the sentences, with UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab saying the act “shows the Belarusian authorities continuing their assault on the defenders of democracy and freedom”.

“Locking up political opponents will only deepen the pariah status of the Lukashenko regime,” Raab said.

In a statement, the United States also denounced the prison sentences.

“The United States condemns the politically motivated conviction and shameful sentencing today of Belarusian opposition figures Maria Kolesnikova and Maxim Znak,” a State Department statement read.

“Regrettably, these sentencings are further evidence of the regime’s total disregard for the human rights and fundamental freedoms of the people of Belarus,” the statement read, calling for an end to the “campaign of repression”.

In Brussels, European Commission spokesman Peter Stano said that “the EU … reiterates its demands for the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners in Belarus.”

The verdicts are “a symbol of the ruthless methods, the repression and intimidation by the Belarusian regime of opposition politicians and civil society”, German Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Andrea Sasse said in Berlin.

Amnesty International called the verdict arbitrary, and said the ruling was “designed to crush the hopes” of a generation of Belarusians.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies