West cries foul as Belarus protest leader Kolesnikova sentenced to 11 years

Maria Kolesnikova became one of the faces of the mass opposition movement during Belarus' 2020 presidential election. PHOTO: REUTERS

KIEV (REUTERS) - Maria Kolesnikova, one of the leaders of mass street protests against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko last year, was sentenced to 11 years in prison on Monday (Sept 6), leading to an outcry from Western countries.

Kolesnikova, 39, had been detained after ripping up her passport to prevent Belarusian security forces from deporting her in a standoff at the Ukrainian border in September.

The musician-turned-politician became one of the faces of the mass opposition movement during the August 2020 presidential election, which the protesters say was rigged to extend Mr Lukashenko's grip on power.

Mr Lukashenko, who has denied electoral fraud, has been in office in the former Soviet republic since 1994 and has faced fresh Western sanctions since launching a violent crackdown on his opponents.

Kolesnikova and another senior opposition figure, Maxim Znak, were charged with extremism and trying to seize power illegally. Both denied wrongdoing and Kolesnikova called the charges absurd.

Znak was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Both prisoners will appeal the verdict, Znak's lawyer told reporters.

The European Union denounced the verdict, while Britain's foreign minister called it an assault on defenders of democracy.

"The EU deplores the continuous blatant disrespect by the Minsk regime of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of the people of Belarus," the European Union's spokesperson said in a statement.

Belarus has denied committing human rights abuses and portrayed the protesters as bent on violent revolution, backed by foreign powers.

Footage from the Sputnik Belarus channel showed the two prisoners in a glass cage ahead of the verdict. Kolesnikova raised her handcuffed hands to make her trademark heart sign and smiled for the cameras.

Exiled opposition figure Svetlana Tikhanovskaya wrote on Twitter that: "Maria & Maksim are the heroes for Belarusians. The regime wants us to see them crushed & exhausted. But look - they are smiling & dancing."

"They know - we will release them much earlier than these 11 years. Their terms shouldn't frighten us - Maksim and Maria wouldn't want this," she added.

Belarusian opposition figures Maxim Znak and Maria Kolesnikova during a court hearing in Minsk. PHOTO: REUTERS

The trial, which began last month, was closed to the public on national security grounds. The circumstances of the case, the investigators and the witnesses were not disclosed. Dozens of people came to the court building on Monday, according to several videos circulating on social media.

Kolesnikova was among tens of thousands of people detained after the protests began.

She was one of three women, all political novices, who joined forces to front last year's election campaign against Mr Lukashenko after higher-profile male candidates were barred from standing.

Viktor Babariko, one of the men who tried to stand against Mr Lukashenko, was jailed for 14 years in July.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.