Belarusian opposition figures on trial as defiant Olympian leaves Tokyo

Ukraine steps up security for Belarusian exiles after activist found hanged

 Belarusian opposition figures Maria Kolesnikova (centre) and Maxim Znak during a court hearing in Minsk on Wednesday. Photograph: Ramil Nasibulin/EPA

Belarusian opposition figures Maria Kolesnikova (centre) and Maxim Znak during a court hearing in Minsk on Wednesday. Photograph: Ramil Nasibulin/EPA

 

Belarus has put two more leading pro-democracy figures on trial amid continuing repression of its opposition movement, as one of the country’s Olympic athletes arrived in Austria after refusing to go home due to fears for her safety.

Maria Kolesnikova and Maksim Znak face up to 12 years in jail if convicted of extremism, plotting to seize power and threatening national security, in what they and western capitals reject as a show trial staged by the regime of veteran Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko.

Ms Kolesnikova was a prominent leader of anti-Lukashenko protests that erupted last August after he claimed victory in rigged elections.

The rallies were crushed by a violent police crackdown in which several people died, hundreds were injured and 35,000 detained. Several key opposition figures fled Belarus but Ms Kolesnikova stayed to rally supporters, and reportedly tore up her passport on the border to thwart a security service bid to deport her.

State media footage from the closed trial showed Ms Kolesnikova smiling and dancing behind the metal bars of the dock, alongside a more subdued Mr Znak.

“This absurd accusation . . . is evidence of the lawlessness of this police state,” Ms Kolesnikova (39) told Russia’s TV Rain in an interview published before the trial.

“The authorities are terrified of an open trial, where everyone will see that, in fact, the authorities themselves are the main danger and threat for Belarusians, for Belarus and for national security,” she added.

Asked whether she would ask for a pardon, she said of the regime: “This is a gang of low, cowardly swindlers and it would be strange to trust them. They always lie. Don’t believe them, don’t fear them, don’t ask for anything, and laugh – that’s my principle in dealing with them.”

Fleeing sprinter

As the trial began in Minsk, sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya was flying from Japan to Austria in defiance of an order to return home from Belarusian sports officials whom she publicly criticised for their management of the nation’s Olympic team.

Belarusian athlete Krystsina Tsimanouskaya with Austrian state secretary Magnus Brunner during a stopover in Vienna on Wednesday. Photograph: Florian Schroetter/EPA
Belarusian athlete Krystsina Tsimanouskaya with Austrian state secretary Magnus Brunner during a stopover in Vienna on Wednesday. Photograph: Florian Schroetter/EPA

The Polish embassy in Tokyo took her in and gave her a humanitarian visa to enter the country, but amid concerns over her security and privacy she switched flights and flew not to Warsaw but to Vienna; she was expected to travel to Poland later on Wednesday and be reunited there with her husband, who fled from Belarus to Ukraine on Sunday.

Ukrainian police opened a murder investigation after Belarusian opposition activist Vitaly Shishov was found hanged in a park in Kiev on Tuesday.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy ordered his country’s security services on Wednesday to assess the risks facing Belarusian exiles and said that “every Belarusian who could be a target for criminals because of their public political position should receive special and dependable protection.”