Belarus jails protest leader for 11 years – 12 months after she escaped from dictator Lukashenko’s thugs by jumping from a moving car as they tried to kick her out of the country
- Maria Kolesnikova was sentenced to 11 years in prison on Monday
- She has become a symbol of the protest movement in Belarus
- Authorities attempted to deport her several times but she ripped up her passport
- Her lawyer, Maxim Znak, received a ten-year sentence
- Belarusian President Lukashenko has cracked down on opponents since last year
- It comes after Poland gave visas to Olympic athletes scared to return to Belarus
A court in Belarus sentenced one of the country’s most prominent opposition figures, Maria Kolesnikova, to 11 years in prison on Monday after she led protests against President Alexander Lukashenko last year.
She is the only major leader of last year’s mass protests still in Belarus and has been in custody for a year after resisting deportation by ripping up her passport.
She was arrested last September, when KGB agents put a sack over her head, pushed her into a minibus and drove her to the Ukrainian border.
She resisted the attempt to throw her out of the country by diving out of the moving car.
Kolesnikova’s lawyer Maxim Znak was also handed a 10-year sentence, according to the press service of onetime presidential hopeful Viktor Babaryko, whose campaign was managed by Kolesnikova.
Lukashenko, in power since 1994, has been cracking down on opponents since the protests which erupted when he claimed victory in a disputed August election.
Kolesnikova – who was handcuffed inside a defendant’s cage – made a heart-shaped symbol with her hands, which she often did at protest rallies
Kolesnikova’s lawyer Maxim Znak (left) was also handed a 10-year sentence, according to the press service of onetime presidential hopeful Viktor Babaryko, whose campaign was managed by Kolesnikova
Lukashenko, in power since 1994, has been cracking down on opponents since the protests, which erupted when he claimed victory in a disputed election
Kolesnikova – a 39-year-old former flute player in the country’s philharmonic orchestra – has become a symbol of the protest movement in Belarus
In a video from inside the court shown by Russian media, Kolesnikova – who was handcuffed inside a defendant’s cage – made a heart-shaped symbol with her hands, a signature gesture she often performed at protest rallies.
She was smiling and wearing her signature dark red lipstick.
‘Dear spectators, we are happy to see you,’ Znak, who was standing next to her, said in the video before the sentence was read out.
Kolesnikova – a 39-year-old former flute player in the country’s philharmonic orchestra – has become a symbol of the protest movement in Belarus.
Kolesnikova was part of a female trio of protest leaders along with Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and Veronika Tsepkalo, both of whom fled the country.
Tikhanovskaya, who stood for president in place of her jailed husband and claims she won the election, called the pair ‘heroes’ after the sentencing.
‘The regime wants us to see them crushed and exhausted. But look: they are smiling and dancing,’ Tikhanovskaya, who is now based in Lithuania, said on Twitter.
Together the three women inspired a wave of female-led protests.
Thousands of protesters took to the streets of the Belarusian capital last year to protest President Lukashenko’s continued grip on the country
People gathered at an industrial neighbourhood in southeast Minsk before marching along Partisan Prospect- a key transport artery and home to a number of factories
Kolesnikova was part of a female trio of protest leaders along with Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and Veronika Tsepkalo. The three women inspired a wave of female-led protests last year
Kolesnikova and Znak, 40, had worked for Babaryko, considered one of Lukashenko’s strongest opponents, who in July was jailed for 14 years on fraud charges.
Last year, security forces detained more than 13,000 people in the protests following the August election, and began clamping down on independent media.
Anzhela Krasovskaya, a Belarusian woman from Minsk who took part in last year’s protests, said: ‘There’s no way back for us. If they start shooting then there would be even more people in the streets.’
Meanwhile, pensioner Maria Petrovich said demonstrations would continue until Lukashenko quits.
She added: ‘The level of violence perpetrated by the authorities is unprecedented.’
But the protests have since ran out of steam and authorities have sought to wipe out any remaining pockets of dissent with stricter measures.
Lukashenko meanwhile has shown no signs of stepping down and maintains the backing of key ally and creditor Russia, despite Western countries piling sanctions on the regime over the treatment of opposition activists at home and abroad.
The strongman faced a global outcry in May when a passenger plane was forced to land in Minsk and a dissident onboard was arrested.
Belarus was back in the international spotlight in August after an athlete said her team tried to force her to leave the Tokyo Olympics, and an exiled opposition activist was found hanged in a park in Ukraine.
Poland offers visa to second Belarus Olympic athlete scared to return home
Poland has provided a humanitarian visa to a second Belarusian athlete, Olga Safronova, who said it would have been ‘dangerous’ for her to remain home, the Polish news agency PAP reported Monday.
Safronova came to neighbouring Poland, which has been offering refuge to a growing number of Belarusian dissidents, after she was dropped from the Belarus roster for the Tokyo Olympics when her horse was deemed to be limping.
Safronova said it would have been ‘dangerous’ for her to remain in Belarus
But ‘when I came to Poland and got the horse examined, it turned out that it was completely healthy and fit to compete,’ she told PAP.
She then spoke out against Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko and sports officials, according to her lawyer Tomasz Wilinski, and landed on a list of traitors.
‘It was this list where if you found yourself on it, you could not work or continue your sports career,’ Safronova said.
‘If I hadn’t left Belarus, it would have been dangerous for me… Here I feel safe and my horses are safe,’ she added.
Poland gave both her and her partner humanitarian visas and she is now living and training outside of Warsaw, with plans to apply for Polish citizenship and represent the country at sporting events.
Poland had earlier provided a visa to Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, who took refuge in the EU member state last month after a spat with Belarusian officials at the Olympics that left her fearing for her life if forced to return home.
Belarus has been wracked by political upheaval and a crackdown on dissent after disputed elections that returned Lukashenko to power last year.
Dressage rider Olga Safronova is the second Belarusian Olympic athlete to be offered sanctuary by Poland after she spoke out against Lukashenko
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