Thursday. 30.03.2023

Belarusian protest leader Kolesnikova handed 11-year sentence

She was abducted by the Belarusian KGB in Minsk in early September 2020
FILED - 18 August 2020, Belarus, Minsk: Maria Kolesnikova, opposition politician in Belarus, speaks during an opposition press conference in Minsk. Kolesnikova was sentenced to 11 years in prison on Monday for her role in protests after last year's disputed elections in Belarus, according to state media. Photo: Ulf Mauder/dpa
Maria Kolesnikova, opposition politician in Belarus, was sentenced to 11 years in prison on Monday. Photo: Ulf Mauder/dpa/File photo.

Maria Kolesnikova was a symbol of freedom during last year's protests against President Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus, but now the 39-year-old is facing 11 years in a prison camp for her leading role in the demonstrations.

A court in the capital Minsk found her guilty on Monday of charges of attempting to illegally seize power. Her co-defendant, lawyer Maxim Snak, with whom she founded the Coordinating Council for the Transfer of Power in Belarus, received a similarly harsh 10-year sentence.

Kolesnikova stood in a cage in the courtroom, and despite being handcuffed, managed to make her trademark heart sign and appeared to be energetic and in good spirits.

Along with Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and Veronika Zepkalo, Kolesnikova came to international attention as one of the top opposition activists to emerge in last year's pro-democracy protests. The other two women are now in exile abroad.

She was abducted by Belarus' KGB in Minsk at the beginning of September last year. As she was being forcibly deported to Ukraine, however, Kolesnikova tore up her passport at the border, leaving the Belarusian authorities with no choice but to let her remain in the country.

There have been no mass public protests in Belarus for months, and a climate of fear has once again returned to the streets. Courts have imprisoned anyone opposing Lukashenko's rule and many opposition leaders have been forced to move abroad.

The verdict and harsh sentences drew immediate condemnation from around the world.

The British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said the ruling showed that the government in Minsk was continuing its "attack on the defenders of democracy and freedom."

Amnesty International called the verdict arbitrary, and the leader of the ruling conservative group in the German Bundestag called for additional EU sanctions on Belarus.

Pressure on Lukashenko

Artyom Shraibman, a Belarusian analyst currently in exile, now expects a further ramping up of pressure on Lukashenko's regime.

"After all, the opposition cannot get the prisoners out of jail with its own troops," the political scientist told the radio station Ekho Moskvy.

The mass protests in Belarus last summer were triggered by the August 9 presidential elections, which were widely considered rigged.

Lukashenko was declared the victor with 80.1 per cent of the vote according to the country's electoral commission, and was duly sworn in for a sixth successive presidential term.

The anti-Lukashenko demonstrations were brutally suppressed by the police and security forces.

According to human rights activists, there are hundreds of political prisoners in Belarus.

Belarusian protest leader Kolesnikova handed 11-year sentence