Leading Belarus opposition figure who refused to leave country goes on trial

Kolesnikova said authorities offered to release her if she asked for a pardon and gave a repentant interview to state media

David Harding
Wednesday 04 August 2021 19:17
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<p>Maria Kolesnikova attends court on Wednesday</p>

Maria Kolesnikova attends court on Wednesday

A leader of the street protests against Alexander Lukashenko in the wake of last year’s disputed Belarus presidential election has appeared in court accused of conspiring to seize power, creating an extremist organisation and calling for actions damaging state security.

The trial of Maria Kolesnikova and lawyer Maxim Znak, both leading members of the opposition Coordination Council, is taking place behind closed doors in Minsk.

The pair will be imprisoned for up to 12 years if convicted.

Kolesnikova resisted authorities’ attempts to force her to leave the country. When security officers drove her to the border with Ukraine in September, she ripped up her passport and walked back into the country to face arrest.

She wrote in a message from prison: “Freedom is worth fighting for. Do not be afraid to be free. I do not regret anything and would do the same again.”

Just before the start of her trial, Kolesnikova said in a note from prison that authorities offered to release her from custody if she asked for a pardon and gave a repentant interview to state media.

A video clip of the beginning of the trial showed Kolesnikova smiling, dancing and making a heart symbol.

Her trial comes at a time when the international spotlight has increased on President Lukashenko’s autocratic regime.

Also on Wednesday, Olympic sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya flew from Tokyo to Europe after resisting an attempt by her team’s officials to forcibly send her home to Belarus after a dispute over coaching.

The 24-year-old runner said she could be in danger if she returns to her homeland.

Belarus was shaken by months of protests after Lukashenko was declared the winner in the election a year ago, being awarded a sixth term in a vote that the opposition and the West denounced as a sham.

Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, responded to the demonstrations with a massive crackdown in which more than 35,000 people were arrested and thousands beaten by police.

Authorities have ramped up their crackdown on dissent in recent weeks, targeting independent journalists and democracy activists in hundreds of raids.

On Wednesday, the state security agency that still goes under the Soviet-era name KGB, arrested Uladzimir Matskevich, a professor of philosophy who founded a top independent university, after raiding his apartment in Minsk.

On Tuesday, Vitaly Shishov, an activist who ran a group in Ukraine helping Belarusians fleeing persecution, was found hanged in a park.

Ukrainian police have opened a probe to investigate whether it was a suicide or a murder made to look like suicide. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky ordered its law enforcement agencies to better protect Belarusians who sought refuge.

He said: “Every Belarusian who could become a target for criminals because of political stance must receive special reliable protection.”

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