Belarus jails opposition figures amid condemnation from West

More than 650 political prisoners behind bars as Lukashenko as crushes dissent

Maria Kolesnikova inside the defendants’ cage during her verdict hearing on charges of undermining national security, conspiring to seize power and creating an extremist group, on Tuesday in Minsk. Photograph: AFP via Getty Images

Maria Kolesnikova inside the defendants’ cage during her verdict hearing on charges of undermining national security, conspiring to seize power and creating an extremist group, on Tuesday in Minsk. Photograph: AFP via Getty Images

 

Belarus has given long prison terms to two leaders of its pro-democracy movement, after what the European Union and United States denounced as a politically motivated trial staged by the autocratic regime of president Alexander Lukashenko.

A court in Minsk handed down sentences of 11 years to Maria Kolesnikova and 10 years to Maksim Znak for alleged extremism, plotting to seize power and threatening national security.

They are two of more than 650 political prisoners that the EU says are now being held Belarus, following a brutal police crackdown on critics of Mr Lukashenko that claimed several lives, left hundreds injured and landed more than 35,000 people in detention.

Huge protests rocked Belarus after Mr Lukashenko claimed victory in an election last August that the West believes was actually won by opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.

When Ms Tikhanovskaya fled Belarus to escape threats from the regime, Ms Kolesnikova stepped forward to become an outspoken and charismatic protest leader until her arrest last September – after which she tore up her passport to prevent the security services forcing her over the border into Ukraine.

“We demand the immediate release of Maria and Maksim, who aren’t guilty of anything. It’s terror against Belarusians who dare to stand up to the regime. We won’t stop until everybody is free in Belarus,” Ms Tikhanovskaya said on Monday.

“Maria and Maksim are the heroes for Belarusians . . . They know – we will release them much earlier than these 11 years.”

‘Blatant disrespect’

A spokesman for the EU said the bloc “deplores the continuous blatant disrespect by the Minsk regime of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of the people of Belarus. The EU also reiterates its demands for the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners in Belarus.

“The EU will continue its efforts to promote accountability for the brutal repression by the Belarusian authorities,” the spokesman added.

US secretary of state Antony Blinken said Washington “condemns the politically motivated conviction and shameful sentencing” of former musician Ms Kolesnikova (39) and Mr Znak (40), who is a lawyer.

“We reiterate our call for an end to the campaign of repression against the people of Belarus for exercising their human rights . . . [and] our call for Belarusian authorities to begin a genuine dialogue with the democratic opposition and members of civil society leading to free and fair elections,” Mr Blinken added.

The EU and US placed sanctions on the regime of Mr Lukashenko – who has ruled Belarus since 1994 – for his attempts to crush dissent, and tightened them in May when Minsk forced a Ryanair jet to land so that an opposition activist on board could be arrested.

Mr Lukashenko has leaned heavily on Kremlin support to survive the threat to his rule, and is scheduled to meet Russian president Vladimir Putin on Thursday.