Belarus Opposition Leader Sentenced to 11 Years in Prison

MOSCOW — A Belarusian court docket on Monday sentenced Maria Kolesnikova, a number one opposition determine who final yr tried to run for president, to an 11-year jail sentence, one other signal that President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko is pursuing an unrelenting crackdown on dissent following a closely disputed election.

Ms. Kolesnikova and her colleague, Maksim Znak, a lawyer, had been charged with extremism, conspiring to seize energy illegally, and damaging state safety. The trial was held in the capital, Minsk, behind closed doorways, and neither the investigators nor the witnesses had been publicly disclosed. Both defendants denied wrongdoing and stated the decision was politically motivated.

Mr. Znak, who like Ms. Kolesnikova is a number one member of a coordinating council organized by opponents of Mr. Lukashenko, acquired a 10-year sentence in a most safety penal colony.

“This verdict is illegal and unfounded,’’ said the pair’s lawyer, Yevgeny Pylchenko, announcing an appeal. “It is not based on evidence. During the trial, neither their guilt, nor even the commission of the crimes imputed, was confirmed.”

Ms. Kolesnikova turned one in all Belarus’ most outstanding opposition leaders final yr when she determined to run after a outstanding banker, Viktor Babariko, whose marketing campaign she managed, was barred from working and thrown in jail. She ultimately threw her assist behind Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who entered the race after her husband, a outstanding video blogger, was additionally arrested and barred from working.

Understand the Situation in Belarus

Belarus in the highlight. The pressured touchdown of a industrial flight on Sunday, is being seen by a number of nations as a state hijacking known as for by its strongman president, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko.Election outcomes and protest. It got here lower than a yr after Belarusians had been met with a violent police crackdown once they protested the outcomes of an election that many Western governments derided as a sham.Forced airplane touchdown. 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 launched by the federal government, Mr. Protasevich confessed to participating in organizing “mass unrest” final yr, however buddies say the confession was made underneath duress.

In an election denounced by opponents and the West as a sham, Mr. Lukashenko claimed to have received a sixth consecutive time period in August 2020, setting off months of protest. He has wielded ironclad management over Belarus since first gaining the presidency in 1994, together with over the judiciary.

“Today our courts did not pass the most basic test,” Aleksandr Kolesnikov, Ms. Kolesnikova’s father, informed journalists and supporters outdoors the court docket. He stated the decision was a “signal” that the federal government had no intention of fixing its strategy to those that disagree with it.

Ms. Kolesnikova, 39, was a flutist and cultural curator who studied Baroque music in Stuttgart, Germany, earlier than returning to Minsk to arrange a cultural middle and getting concerned in politics. Mr. Znak, 40, is a outstanding arbitration lawyer who as soon as lived in Oklahoma as a pupil.

Last yr, Ms. Kolesnikova aligned herself with Ms. Tikhanovskaya and Veronika Tsepkalo, whose husband, Valery, had additionally been barred from the poll and fled Belarus earlier than election day. Dismissed by the dictator as “poor things,” the three girls donned white and crimson outfits, drawing tens of hundreds of supporters to their pre-election rallies.

Ms. Kolesnikova with Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and Veronika Tsepkalo at a rally in Belarus final yr.Credit…Sergei Gapon/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In the times after the disputed vote, Ms. Tikhanovskaya and Ms. Tsepkalo each went overseas in murky circumstances. Ms. Kolesnikova was kidnapped by masked males on Sept. eight final yr and brought to the nation’s border with Ukraine, however she resisted makes an attempt to forcibly deport her by ripping up her passport, leaping out of the automobile she was in, and strolling again onto Belarusian territory.

“We demand the immediate release of Maria & Maksim, who aren’t guilty of anything,” Ms. Tikhanovskaya, who emerged because the opposition chief in exile and is now residing in Lithuania, wrote on Twitter. “It’s terror against Belarusians who dare to stand up to the regime.”

Despite 11 months behind bars, Ms. Kolesnikova has sought to venture an indomitable spirit, sending constructive letters from jail to family and supporters. When she appeared in court docket on Monday morning, in a glass cage with Mr. Znak, she contorted her handcuffed palms to kind the form of a coronary heart, one in all her trademark messages through the marketing campaign final summer time.

In the times earlier than her trial started final month, Ms. Kolesnikova wrote that the authorities provided to negotiate her launch from custody if she sought a pardon or appeared repentant on state tv. She stated she rejected the provide as a result of she was harmless.

No one in addition to the legal professionals could possibly be current when Ms. Kolesnikova and Mr. Znak made their closing remarks final week. But in accordance to the aides of Mr. Babariko, whose marketing campaign Ms. Kolesnikova had managed, she spoke at size about “moral choice, conscience, respect and love for people” and known as for the rule of regulation to be carried out in her nation.

“No matter how the word ‘democracy’ sounds on television, one cannot ignore what is written about our country in the Constitution,” she reportedly stated.

An estimated tens of hundreds of opposition supporters have fled Belarus after the crackdown that started final yr. The authorities’s marketing campaign of retribution has solely intensified in that point. In May, authorities scrambled a fighter jet to deliver down a airplane carrying a outstanding blogger, Roman Protasevich, after which detained him. The authorities arrested a regulation graduate after she gave a commencement handle in July calling on respect for the rule of regulation.

And in August, the federal government banned athletes from competing in sporting occasions overseas after a 24-year-old sprinter criticized her coaches at this summer time’s Olympics, producing a world scandal.

President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, proven on the display, is urgent an unrelenting crackdown on dissent following a closely disputed victory in elections final yr. Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

“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 — a whole generation of Belarusians who strive to ensure that peaceful changes take place in their country and that human rights are respected in it,” Bruce Millar, deputy director of Amnesty International for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, stated in a press release.