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On Monday, a Belarusian court sentenced two major opposition activists to ten years in prison for leading a protest movement against the country’s strongman President Alexander Lukashenko.
Maria Kolesnikova planned a campaign against Lukashenko in the presidential election last year and then led a protest against his overwhelming victory. She was sentenced to 11 years in prison in a closed trial in Minsk, the capital of Belarus.
Attorney Maxim Znak, who served on the Opposition Leadership Committee with Kolesnikova, was accused of “conspiring to seize state power in violation of the constitution” and “creating extremist groups”. Sentenced to 10 years in prison in the facility.
These punishments show how Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus with an iron fist since 1994, used force to ensure his control of the 9.5 million population after last year’s protests disrupted his rule.
The security forces broke up the rally demanding Lukashenko’s surrender of power — the largest of which attracted about 200,000 people — and arrested 35,000 protesters. Many people said they were beaten and tortured during their detention. Human rights organizations estimate that Belarus has held more than 650 political prisoners.
The repression made Lukashenko an international pariah. He accused the West of trying to plot his downfall or assassinated him, and pushed him into the arms of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The United States and the European Union refused to recognize the election results, which gave Lukashenko 80% of the vote. They also sanctioned Belarus for post-election violence and forcing the landing of a Ryanair flight carrying a famous dissident blogger.
On Monday, the European Union expressed its “regret for the Minsk regime’s continued blatant disregard of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of the Belarusian people” and called for the release of activists.
The EU added in a statement: “The EU will continue its efforts to promote accountability for the brutal repression of the Belarusian authorities.”
The relationship between Putin and Lukashenko has so far been cold. Since the protest, they have met five times and have talked on the phone many times to discuss strengthening the relationship.
The two presidents plan to sign a “road map” for secretly negotiated integration plans in Moscow on Thursday, and then observe major joint military exercises on the border between the two countries and the European Union.
The 39-year-old Kolesnikova was a flute player of the Belarusian Philharmonic Orchestra and the campaign manager of former banker Viktor Babariko. He was sentenced to 14 years in prison for taking bribes and tax evasion.
After Barbarico and several other opposition candidates were banned from running for the election, Kolesnikova and the wife of another presidential candidate who was sentenced to prison, Svyatlana Zihanusskaya Together, they launched a surprising challenge to Lukashenko.
Qihanusskaya claimed to have won the vote, but fled Belarus a few days later, saying the country was worried that the KGB threatened her family.
When the masked man tied Kolesnikova to a van and drove her to the border between Belarus and Ukraine and told her that she must “live or be mutilated” and leave, she tore up her passport. So they cannot deport her.
“We demand the immediate release of Maria and Maxim. They did not commit any crimes,” Tskihanusskaya wrote on Twitter. “This is a terror for Belarusians who dare to resist the regime.”