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Belarusian opposition figure Kolesnikova handed 11 years behind bars for role in post-election protest movement against Lukashenko

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Belarusian opposition figure Kolesnikova handed 11 years behind bars for role in post-election protest movement against Lukashenko

A court in Belarus has sentenced one of the country’s most prominent opposition politicians to more than a decade in prison over allegations that she attempted to overthrow the government of veteran leader Alexander Lukashenko.

On Monday, a judge at Minsk Regional Court handed down the ruling to Maria Kolesnikova, finding her guilty of a range of offenses, including conspiracy to seize power. She will spend 11 years behind bars, while fellow activist Maxim Znak will be locked up for 10 years on similar charges.

Kolesnikova was a key part of the three-woman campaign team that stood against Lukashenko in last summer’s presidential election. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who stood as the group’s candidate, and activist Veronica Tsepkalo have both since fled the country amid a crackdown on the opposition. However, Kolesnikova reportedly refused efforts to deport her and is even said to have torn up her passport to avoid being sent over the border to Ukraine.

Responding to the decision, Tikhanovksaya wrote online that “Maria and Maksim are the heroes for Belarusians,” saying, “the regime wants us to see them crushed and exhausted.” She posted a video from the courtroom in which the pair can be seen smiling, while Kolesnikova makes a love heart symbol with her hands. The opposition argues the charges are politically motivated.

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The only one of the three campaigners to have worked in politics prior to the election, Kolesnikova served as an advisor to Viktor Babariko, who had been one of the Eastern European nation’s most prominent opposition figures. Once tipped as a successor to Lukashenko, Babariko was sentenced to 14 years in jail in July over claims he was involved in a fraud scheme.

Tens of thousands of people took to the streets in cities across Belarus after last summer’s election, which the opposition, and many international observers, say was rigged in Lukashenko’s favor. Activists calling for new polls were met with a heavy-handed police response, with tear gas, stun grenades and widespread arrests.

Also on Monday, local media reported that a 58-year-old Russian woman detained in Belarus would face trial for allegedly slandering Lukashenko. She is said to have tweeted that the veteran leader was responsible for an act of “terrorism and sky piracy” over his government’s grounding of a passenger jet and the arrest of activist Roman Protasevich, in May. If convicted, she faces five years in jail. Protasevich’s girlfriend, a Russian national, is also being held by authorities in the country, and Moscow is understood to be providing consular support.

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