Belarus opposition activist Maria Kolesnikova jailed for 11 years for leading protests

By Rachael Alexander

Maria Kolesnikova, one of the leaders of mass street protests against Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko last year, was sentenced to 11 years in jail yesterday, leading to an outcry from Western countries.

Ms Kolesnikova (39) had been detained after ripping up her passport to stop Belarusian security forces deporting her in a standoff at the Ukrainian border in September.

The musician-turned-politician became one of the faces of the mass opposition movement during the August 2020 presidential election, which the protesters say was rigged to extend Mr Lukashenko’s grip on power.

Mr Lukashenko, who has denied electoral fraud, has been in office in the former Soviet republic since 1994.

He has faced fresh Western sanctions since launching a violent crackdown on his opponents. Ms Kolesnikova and another senior opposition figure, Maxim Znak, were charged with extremism and trying to seize power illegally.

Mr Znak was sentenced to 10 years in prison. His lawyer told reporters that both prisoners will appeal the verdict. The EU has denounced the ruling.

Belarus has denied committing human rights abuses and has portrayed the protesters as bent on violent revolution, backed by foreign powers.

Footage from the Sputnik Belarus channel showed the two prisoners in a glass cage ahead of the verdict. Ms
Kolesnikova raised her handcuffed hands to make her trademark heart sign and smiled for the cameras.

Exiled opposition figure Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya wrote on Twitter that: “Maria & Maksim are the heroes for Belarusians. The regime wants us to see them crushed & exhausted. But look – they are smiling & dancing.”

Ms Kolesnikova was among tens of thousands held after the protests began. Viktor Babariko – one of the men who tried to stand against Mr Lukashenko – was jailed for 14 years in July. 

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