Belarus jails protest leader Kolesnikova for 11 years

A court in Belarus sentenced one of the country’s most prominent opposition figures, Maria Kolesnikova, to 11 years in prison on Monday after she led unprecedented protests against President Alexander Lukashenko last year. 

Kolesnikova’s lawyer Maxim Znak was also handed a 10-year sentence, according to the press service of onetime presidential hopeful Viktor Babaryko, whose campaign was managed by Kolesnikova. 

She is the only major leader of last year’s mass protests still in Belarus and has been in custody for a year after resisting deportation by ripping up her passport. 

Lukashenko, in power since 1994, has been cracking down on opponents since the protests, which erupted when he claimed victory in a disputed election. 

In a video from inside the court shown by Russian media, Kolesnikova — who was handcuffed inside a defendant’s cage — made a heart-shaped symbol with her hands, which she often did at protest rallies. 

She was smiling and wearing her signature dark red lipstick.

“Dear spectators, we are happy to see you,” Znak, who was standing next to her, said in the video before the sentence was read out. 

Kolesnikova — a 39-year-old former flute player in the country’s philharmonic orchestra — has become a symbol of the protest movement in Belarus.

She was arrested last September, when KGB agents put a sack over her head, pushed her into a minibus and drove her to the Ukrainian border. 

She resisted the attempt to throw her out of the country by reportedly jumping out of the car.

– ‘Heroes’ –

Kolesnikova was part of a female trio of protest leaders along with Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and Veronika Tsepkalo, both of whom fled the country.

Tikhanovskaya, who stood for president in place of her jailed husband and claims she won the election, called the pair “heroes” after the sentencing.

“The regime wants us to see them crushed and exhausted. But look: they are smiling and dancing,” Tikhanovskaya, who is now based in Lithuania, said on Twitter.  

Together the three women inspired a wave of female-led protests. 

Kolesnikova and Znak, 40, had worked for Babaryko, considered one of Lukashenko’s strongest opponents, who in July was jailed for 14 years on fraud charges.

Western countries have piled sanctions on Lukashenko’s regime over the treatment of opposition activists at home and abroad. 

Lukashenko faced a global outcry in May when a passenger plane was forced to land in Minsk and a dissident onboard was arrested.

Belarus was back in the international spotlight in August after an athlete said her team tried to force her to leave the Tokyo Olympics, and an exiled opposition activist was found hanged in a park in Ukraine.

But with the protests having run out of steam and authorities seeking to wipe out any remaining pockets of dissent, Lukashenko has shown no signs of stepping down and maintains the backing of key ally and creditor Russia.

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