She is a figure of the opposition. And it is a new illustration of the limitless repression of any challenge to the regime of Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus. Belarusian justice sentenced Maria Kolesnikova, 39, to eleven years in prison on Monday.
She was found guilty of “conspiracy to seize power”, “calls for actions undermining national security” and “creation of an extremist formation”, according to the press service of Viktor Babaryko , another imprisoned opponent for whom she had worked. His co-accused, lawyer Maxime Znak, was sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment.
Repression against the media, opponents and NGOs
The trial of the two opponents, imprisoned for eleven months, began in early August and was held behind closed doors, so that few details have leaked out, especially as most independent media, NGOs and opposition movements have suffered unremitting repression for months.
Defense lawyers were also prohibited from speaking on the content of the case.
According to images released before the verdict by accounts on Telegram messaging, Maria Kolesnikova, short hair, wearing lipstick, was smiling at the hearing, locked with Maxime Znak in the glass cage reserved for the accused. Handcuffed, she formed, for the attention of the few authorized pro-power media, a heart with her hands, one of the rallying signs of the opposition.
At the start of the trial, she had sketched a few dance steps as a sign of mistrust in the power of Alexander Lukashenko, at the helm since 1994 and whose re-election criticized in 2020 had triggered an unprecedented challenge.
Abduction and incredible escape
Maria Kolesnikova was imprisoned in September 2020 after spectacularly resisting an attempt by the authorities to expel her from her own country. According to her relatives, the Belarusian special services (KGB) kidnapped her, then put a bag over her head to take her to the Ukrainian border. Refusing to leave Belarus, she jumped out of a window and tore up her passport, resulting in her incarceration.
Maria Kolesnikova and Maxime Znak worked for Viktor Babaryko, rival of the Belarusian president recently sentenced to fourteen years in prison for fraud, a case he denounces as a politician.
They also belonged to the seven-member Coordination Council set up by the opposition after the August 2020 presidential election to try to organize a peaceful transition of power.
Maria Kolesnikova was one of the three women propelled to the head of the protest movement, with Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, presidential candidate in place of her imprisoned husband, and Veronika Tsepkalo. The latter two fled the country, under pressure from the authorities.
The protest movement, which gathered tens of thousands of demonstrators in the streets in the summer of 2020, has been gradually subdued, with thousands of arrests, forced exiles and imprisonments of political leaders, media officials and NGOs.
Europe and the United States denounce this condemnation
The opposition candidate in this ballot, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya reacted on Twitter to this verdict, demanding “the immediate release of Maria and Maxime”. “It is about terrorizing Belarusians who are opposed to the regime,” she said.
The EU denounced Minsk’s “blatant disregard” for human rights, when Berlin deemed this condemnation “unjustifiable” and London demanded an end to the “repression”.
“The courage of Maria who has decided to stay in Belarus despite a threat of a heavy prison sentence, will not be forgotten,” said the NGO Amnesty International in a statement.
The United States considered this condemnation “shameful”. “These verdicts are further proof of the regime’s total disregard for the human rights and fundamental freedoms of the people of Belarus,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.
Minsk supported by Moscow
The Belarusian regime is also accused of having hijacked a commercial flight in May on the pretext of a bomb threat in order to arrest the dissident and journalist Roman Protassevich who was on board. The West has adopted several sanctions packages against Minsk, which however enjoys the unwavering support of Moscow.
President Lukashenko is to be received again this week by Vladimir Putin, the two leaders working for months to strengthen the economic and political integration of their countries.