A Belarusian court has sentenced the senior 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, a leader of the opposition’s coordination council, was one of three women last year who united 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, she reportedly ripped up her passport, risking prison rather than going into exile.
She was charged with conspiracy to seize power, calling for action to damage national security, and calling for actions damaging national security using media and the internet.
At the same court hearing, the lawyer Maxim Znak, another member of the opposition council’s leadership, was given a 10-year prison sentence on similar charges. He had gone on hunger strike while awaiting trial to protest against the charges against him.
“We demand the immediate release of Maria and Maksim, who aren’t 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 facing arrest.
Both Kalesnikava and Znak had been members of the presidential campaign of Viktar Babaryka, a former banker who had challenged Lukashenko in last year’s elections and appeared to have significant support before his arrest. He was sentenced to 14 years in prison in July on charges of bribe-taking and money laundering.
Video from Monday’s court hearing in Minsk showed Kalesnikava and Znak standing in a glass cage for defendants commonly called an “aquarium”. Kalesnikava, in handcuffs, smiled as journalists took photographs and flashed a “heart” symbol with her hands, a symbol of last year’s anti-Lukashenko protests.
“It’s good to see all of you,” Znak told journalists as guards tried to prevent them from speaking from the dock.
“Maria and Maksim are the heroes for Belarusians. The regime wants us to see them crushed and exhausted. But look – they are smiling and 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,” Tsikhanouskaya wrote.
Lukashenko has gone to extreme lengths in recent months to punish opponents of his regime as his crackdown enters its second year. In May, the government forced down a Ryanair jet carrying the opposition journalist and blogger Roman Protasevich from Athens to Vilnius. Also, a Belarusian sprinter who had criticised her team’s leadership was nearly bundled on to a plane from Tokyo back to Minsk before she appealed to 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 that offer medical and hospice care, have been shut down as Lukashenko carries out what he has called a “purge” of disloyal organisations.