Moscow – A court in Belarus handed a 11-year jail sentence to Maria Kolesnikova, an opposition leader who inspired massive protests against dictatorial rule of Alexander Lukashenko last year, state media reported.
Kolesnikova’s lawyer Maxim Znak was also sentenced to 10 years in prison. In a closed trial they were found guilty of threatening the “national security” of Belarus, founding an extremist group and conspiring to “seize power in an unconstitutional way.”
Belarusian opposition politician Maria Kolesnikova, charged with extremism and trying to seize power illegally, forms a heart shape in handcuffs inside a defendants’ cage as she attends a court hearing in Minsk, Belarus September 6, 2021.
Ramil Nasibulin/BelTA/Handout via REUTERS
Tens of thousands of people protested across Belarus following last year’s presidential election in which Lukashenko, who has ruled the country with an iron fist since 1994, declared victory. Many local and international observers criticized the election as fraudulent and the ballot-counting process as non-transparent.
Kolesnikova was a campaign manager for president hopeful Viktor Babaryko, who was put into a KGB prison ahead of the vote in a move seen as a way to remove tough competition for Lukashenko.
Kolesnikova then stepped into the spotlight, protesting alongside Veronika Tsepkalo and Svetlana Tikhonovskaya, the wife of another jailed candidate and popular blogger Sergey Tikhanovsky
The three women campaigned across the country, with Tikhonovskaya running in her husband’s place and subsequently contesting Lukashenko’s claim to victory.
Both Tikhonovskaya and Tsepkalo have since fled the country, and Kolesnikova is the only major protest leader remaining in Belarus. She was detained by KGB agents last September, who put a sack over her head and drove the politician to the Ukrainian border in an attempt to deport her.
But Kolesnikova refused to leave Belarus and tore up her passport.
“She was screaming that she would not go anywhere,” Kolesnikova’s colleague Anton Rodnenkov, who was also detained and deported to Ukraine, told Radio Liberty at the time. “As soon as she was in the car and saw her passport, she immediately tore it into many small pieces and threw out the window.”
“After that, she climbed out of a window and walked towards the Belarusian border,” Rodnenkov added.
In video clips from inside the courtroom, posted on Monday, Kolesnikova appeared defiant — smiling and wearing her signature red lipstick.
Both Kolesnikova and Znak pleaded not guilty and called the process unlawful, MediaZona reported, citing their lawyer Vadym Pylchenko.
The U.S. and EU imposed tough economic sanctions on the Lukashenko regime after he launched a brutal crackdown on protests last year, resulting in thousands of detentions. Human rights groups issued multiple reports shedding light on torture and persecution of jailed dissidents in Belarus.
“The persecution and imprisonment of Maria Kolesnikova and Maxim Znak is intended to destroy the hopes of millions of people on whose behalf they spoke up – a whole generation of Belarusians who strive to ensure that peaceful changes take place in their country and that human rights are respected,” Bruce Miller, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, said in a statement to CBS.
“We demand that Maria Kolesnikova, Maxim Znak and hundreds of other people jailed in Belarus solely for exercising their human rights are released immediately.”
Despite international pressure, Lukashenko has continued to push his country towards a path of isolation. In May, he faced intense international criticism when authorities diverted a passenger plane and forced it to land in Minsk, detaining two dissidents onboard.
With protests coming to a halt under pressure from special services, the Belarusian president found a strong backer in Russian leader Vladimir Putin and has so far shown no signs of backing down.
CBS News’ Svetlana Berdnikova contributed to this report.
New video of journalist detained in Belarus02:10