Alexander Lukashenko’s 13 month intensive crackdown continued on Monday with the sentencing of two prominent opposition activists to multi-year jail sentences.
Maria Kolesnikova, the driving force behind a female triumvirate that likely defeated the longtime autocrat in August 2020 presidential elections, was sentenced to 11 years.
Her colleague, the lawyer Maxim Znak, was given 10 years.
Both were charged with undermining Belarusian state security, though their exact charges — like the trial and verdict itself — were kept secret until the end.
Given the current political atmosphere, and Belarus’s 99.7% conviction rates, the guilty verdicts were a foregone conclusion. But Judge Sergei Ephikhov offered a small surprise by reducing the sentences to slightly less than the 12 years state prosecutors originally sought for both.
The discount may reflect pressure on Mr Lukashenko to show signs of clemency. Alternatively, it could represent the unpredictable autocrat’s desire to keep people guessing.
Ms Kolesnikova and Mr Znak have been in detention ever since they were arrested in September last year. Both began the election cycle as part of Viktor Babariko’s presidential campaign team, but the former banker’s June 2020 arrest propelled the charismatic campaign manager Ms Kolesnikova to prominence.
Ms Kolesnikova was the engine behind a joint election platform with Veronika Tsepkalo and Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, wives of the two other barred candidates. The three campaign teams united behind Ms Tikhanovskaya’s presidential bid to offer Belarusians the opportunity of a fresh, female start.
Judging by independent opinion polls conducted on Election Day, Belarusians embraced the prospect of an overwhelming majority. In the event, the 26-year-long autocrat Mr Lukashenko claimed his own landslide victory.
By the time she was snatched from the streets, Ms Tikhanovskaya and Ms Tsepkalo had fled the country, and the charismatic Kolesnikova was the most recognisable face of the opposition. Her stock grew in democratic circles after it emerged that she had resisted being forcibly removed from the country by ripping up her passport on the Belarusian-Ukrainian border.
Ms Tikhanovskaya described Ms Kolesnikova’s ripping up of her passport as “a historic deed”.
“The regime would want to see Maxim and Maria broken and weakened. But we see our heroes and strong and free inside. They will be free much earlier,” she told AP after the sentencing.
International condemnation of the Belarus regime was swift. British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said the sentencing showed “the Belarusian authorities continuing their assault on the defenders of democracy and freedom”.
European Commission spokesman Peter Stano said the EU reiterated “its demands for the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners in Belarus, including Kolesnikova and Znak”.
Attorneys acting for the jailed opposition activists announced they would appeal the verdict.
"This sentence is illegal and unjustified, and is not based on any evidence," said lawyer Yevgeny Pylchenko. "The trial neither affirmed their guilt or the crimes which they were supposed to have committed."
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