MOSCOW — Belarusian opposition leader Maria Kolesnikova, who refused an effort last year by security agents to forcibly deport her, was found guilty Monday of conspiracy to overthrow the government in Minsk and sentenced to 11 years in prison after a closed trial.
Her opposition colleague, lawyer Maxim Znak, 40, who stood trial alongside her, was sentenced to 10 years. They were also found guilty of inciting violence against national security and creating an extremist group.
Kolesnikova is one of the key opposition figures jailed in Belarus after protests ignited in August last year over a presidential election rejected by opposition activists as rigged. President Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, launched a violent crackdown on the protests, jailing hundreds of the regime’s opponents.
According to the rights group Viasna, 652 people are political prisoners in Belarus.
Kolesnikova, 39, captured the imagination of the Belarusian opposition movement after she was abducted in the street in Minsk by masked security agents last September and driven to the Ukraine border.
Told she could leave or stand trial, she refused to depart, ripped up her passport to avoid deportation, and was arrested and tried. She later said in a statement released through a lawyer that the security agents told her she could be deported “alive or in pieces.”
Although the trial was closed, the verdict was open. Long crowds of supporters formed outside the courtroom Monday, according to video posted online by journalists and activists. Alexander Kolesnikov was her father and managed to enter the courtroom. However, dozens of others were unable.
Her trademark is the heart sign she makes with her hands. Online video showed her smiling and making the gesture in front of courthouse cameras.
When her trial began last month alongside Znak’s, she was pictured dancing in court and making the heart sign, a show of optimistic defiance against Lukashenko’s regime.
U.S. Antony Blinken, Secretary of State of America, condemned the “politically motivated conviction” and the shameful sentencing of both and called for the end of political repression.
“Regrettably, these sentencings are further evidence of the regime’s total disregard for the human rights and fundamental freedoms of the people of Belarus,” he said in a statement.
The European Union and Britain condemned the jailing of Kolesnikova and Znak and called for their release.
“The E.U. “The E.U. deplores that the Minsk regime continues to disregard fundamental freedoms and human rights of Belarusians,” Peter Stano, a spokesperson for the organization said in a statement. Stano said that the accusations were not based. He stated that the EU reiterated its demand for Belarus’ unconditional and immediate release of political prisoners.
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said the sentences showed Belarusian authorities continuing their assault on democracy and freedom.
“Locking up political opponents will only deepen the pariah status of the Lukashenko regime,” he said.
Kolesnikova was one of three women, including Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and Veronika Tsepkalo, who united different opposition forces behind Tikhanovskaya in last year’s presidential election. The official result gave Lukashenko 80.1 percent of the vote and announced that Tikhanovskaya had won 10. 12 percent, but the opposition claimed she gained more than 60 percent.
The official result was rejected by the opposition and Western governments, and Kolesnikova emerged as a key figure leading protests. The result sparked protests across the country, with many workers in a state-owned tractor plant booing Lukashenko as well as shouting for him to resign.
He had himself sworn in to office in a hasty secret ceremony surrounded by security officials and members of the elite, which still supports him and has in many cases benefited from his rule.
After Monday’s verdict, Tikhanovskaya demanded the release of Kolesnikova and Znak, calling them heroes who “aren’t guilty of anything. Terror against Belarusians who stand up to the regime is what it’s all about. We won’t stop until everybody is free in Belarus.”
“The regime wants us to see them crushed and exhausted,” she said on Twitter. She added that “Their terms should not frighten” and said that once the Lukashenko regime had been removed, all political prisoner would be released.
Tikhanovskaya stood in the presidential race only because her husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky, a prominent Lukashenko rival, was jailed before the election. Tsepkalo was denied the right to run in the election by Valery Tsepkalo and fled Ukraine before she could vote.
Kolesnikova headed the campaign team of another opposition leader, Viktor Babariko, who was arrested before the election and was recently sentenced to 14 years in jail on fraud charges that he says were political.
Tikhanovskaya was forcibly deported soon after the election, while Veronika Tsepkalo fled the country.
Tikhanovskaya’s adviser, Franak Viakorka, said on Twitter on Monday after the verdict that he was proud of Kolesnikova and Znak. He said they were innocent and the trial, like Lukashenko’s regime, was a “farce.”
Lukashenko, sanctioned by the West over the violent crackdown on protests and forced landing of a Ryanair jet in May to arrest a journalist, clung to power with the support of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who promised to send in troops if necessary.
As protests continued, Kolesnikova helped set up a national Coordination Council, an opposition initiative to try to engineer a peaceful transition of power. Lukashenko rejected the proposal, stating that Belarus was at risk of being invaded by Western adversaries and only he could save the country.