Belarus opposition leaders jailed in government crackdown

Maria Kolesnikova and Maxim Znak were jailed for 10 and 11 years respectively

Maria Kolesnikova gestures making a heart shape inside the defendants' cage during her verdict hearing on September 6, 2021, in Minsk. AFP
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Two opposition activists have been jailed in Belarus as part of the government’s crackdown on pro-democracy campaigners.

Maria Kolesnikova, 39, a senior member of the opposition Coordination Council, was jailed for 11 years and found guilty of conspiring to seize power, creating an extremist organisation and calling for actions damaging to state security.

Lawyer Maxim Znak, 40, another member of the Coordination Council, faced the same charges and was sentenced to 10 years in prison at the closed court hearing in Minsk.

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

Germany and the UK immediately criticised the sentencing.

Belarus opposition activists Maxim Znak (left) and Maria Kolesnikova in court in Minsk, Belarus. BelTA pool/AP

“The sentencing of Maria Kolesnikova and Maksim Znak shows the Belarusian authorities continuing their assault on the defenders of democracy and freedom,” said UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab.

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

Kolesnikova spent years playing flute in the nation’s philharmonic orchestra after graduating from a conservatory in Minsk.

In 2020, she headed the campaign of Viktor Babariko, the head of a Russian-owned bank who made a bid to challenge President Alexander Lukashenko.

He was barred from the race after being jailed on money laundering and tax evasion charges that he dismissed as political.

Belarus opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya is now in Lithuania. AP

Kolesnikova then became a prominent public face in Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s election campaign.

She became one of the leaders of protests that erupted against Mr Lukashenko after he claimed to have won with 80 per cent support.

Znak worked in the opposition campaign to challenge Mr Lukashenko at last year’s election.

“The German government condemns the unjustified verdict against Maria Kolesnikova and Maxim Znak and the instrumentalisation of the justice system for political repression in Belarus,” a German foreign ministry spokeswoman said.

More than 30,000 protesters were detained in violent police crackdowns after the election and hundreds remain in jail.

“We demand the immediate release of Maria & Maksim, who aren’t guilty of anything,” Ms Tsikhanouskaya wrote on Twitter. “It’s terror against Belarusians who dare to stand up to the regime.”

Since the election protests, Ms Tsikhanouskaya has been in sheltering in Lithuania.

The US and European Union have refused to recognise the election result and imposed sanctions in response to the government's actions.

Russia has backed Mr Lukashenko, who will travel to Moscow later this week.

Updated: September 06, 2021, 1:43 PM