A Belarusian court sentenced the main opposition leader Maria Kalesnikava to 11 years in prison, punishing one of the most prominent opponents of the country’s authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashenko.
Kalesnikava, leader of the opposition coordination council, was one of three women who came together last year to lead an uprising in which tens of thousands of Belarusians took to the streets in the largest protests in the country’s modern history. .
Kalesnikava was arrested last September and taken to the border, where she was told to leave the country. Instead, he reportedly tore up his passport, risking jail rather than going into exile.
She was charged with conspiracy to seize power, calling for actions to harm national security and calling for actions that harm national security using the media and the Internet.
At the same court hearing, lawyer Maxim Znak, another member of the opposition council leadership, was sentenced to 10 years in prison on similar charges. He had gone on a hunger strike while awaiting trial to protest the charges against him.
“We demand the immediate release of Maria and Maksim, who are not guilty of anything,” wrote Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, an opposition leader who ran for president against Lukashenko. She is based in Latvia and cannot return to the country without being arrested.
Both Kalesnikava and Znak had been members of the presidential campaign of Viktar Babaryka, a former banker who had challenged Lukashenko in elections last year and appeared to have significant support prior to his arrest. He was sentenced to 14 years in prison in July on charges of accepting bribes and money laundering.
Video from Monday’s court hearing in Minsk showed Kalesnikava and Znak standing in a glass cage for the defendants commonly called an “aquarium.” Kalesnikava, handcuffed, smiled as journalists took pictures and held up a “heart” symbol with their hands, a symbol of last year’s anti-Lukashenko protests.
“It’s good to see you all,” Znak told reporters as the guards tried to prevent them from speaking from the bench.
“Maria and Maksim are the heroes of the Belarusians. The regime wants us to see them crushed and exhausted. But look, they are smiling and dancing. They know it: we will publish them long before these 11 years. Their terms should not scare us, Maksim and Maria would not want this, ”wrote Tsikhanouskaya.
Lukashenko has done his best in recent months to punish opponents of his regime as his crackdown enters its second year. In May, the government shot down a Ryanair plane carrying opposition journalist and blogger Roman Protasevich from Athens to Vilnius. Furthermore, a Belarusian sprinter who had criticized her team’s leadership was nearly sent on a plane from Tokyo back to Minsk before asking the police and the international community for protection.
Meanwhile, hundreds of people in Belarus have been arrested, including opposition politicians, lawyers, journalists and other members of civil society. Dozens of NGOs, including those offering medical and hospital care, have been shut down as Lukashenko carries out what he has called a “purge” of disloyal organizations.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism