Belarus jail terms for opposition figures Kolesnikova and Znak

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Belarusian opposition figures Maria Kolesnikova and Maxim Znak appear in courtImage source, Reuters
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Maxim Znak (L) and Maria Kolesnikova (R) smiled as they appeared in court for their sentencing on Monday

Two leading opposition figures who challenged Belarus's discredited presidential polls have been jailed for trying to threaten national security and seize power.

Protest organiser Maria Kolesnikova was jailed for 11 years while lawyer Maxim Znak received 10 years.

They joined an opposition council after President Alexander Lukashenko claimed victory in 2020's disputed election.

Prosecutors accused the council of trying to stage a coup.

On Monday, a court in Minsk, the capital, found Kolesnikova and Znak guilty of crimes including plotting to seize power, threatening national security and extremism.

They both denied the charges against them and denounced the trial as a sham. Their lawyers said they would appeal against the verdict.

For months, Belarusians protested against the August 2020 vote, denounced by the EU, US and UK as neither free nor fair.

Tens of thousands of protesters were detained and many were brutally beaten, as Mr Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, tried to silence dissent.

Independent journalists and activists have been arrested in a crackdown that continues a year later, with some 650 political prisoners in detention, activists say.

Image source, Reuters
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Belarus was gripped by mass protests last year, triggered by an election widely seen as rigged

The head of Belarus's opposition, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, was forced into exile in Lithuania the day after she claimed victory in the presidential election.

In contrast, her opposition colleague, Kolesnikova, resisted attempts to have her thrown out of Belarus, tearing up her passport, after she was seen being bundled into a vehicle in Minsk.

Weeks later, she was charged with incitement to undermine national security.

Kolesnikova has already been behind bars for over 11 months. As she appeared in court for sentencing on Monday, she smiled at state TV cameras, and made heart shapes with her hands.

A flute player in the country's philharmonic orchestra, she has become a symbol of the protest movement in Belarus.

Guilty verdict no surprise

This guilty verdict was no surprise. Kolesnikova and Znak were central to a mass wave of protests last year against President Lukashenko, and against an election many Belarusians believe was rigged.

So the pair's team say they're being punished for their politics.

In court today, Kolesnikova was typically defiant, smiling and making her trademark heart shape with cuffed hands.

Since her arrest, the protests have faded. It's too dangerous now. But outside court on Monday, a long line of supporters came to show their solidarity.

Ms Tikhanovskaya called for the immediate release of Kolesnikova and Znak, who she said "aren't guilty of anything".

"It's terror against Belarusians who dare to stand up to the regime," Ms Tikhanovskaya tweeted. "We won't stop until everybody is free in Belarus."

Earlier, Franak Viacorka, one of Ms Tikhanovskaya's senior advisers, told the BBC that President Lukashenko was taking revenge on popular opposition figures.

Ms Viacorka said Kolesnikova was an "inspiring character" who still had "energy and bravery" after one year in custody.

This month's trial was closed to the public for security reasons and lawyers for the accused were banned from revealing any details of the case against them.

Maxim Znak told the BBC it was because of a lack of evidence. He said there was only one reason why the trial was held in secret, because the charges "don't exist".

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The BBC speaks to some of those whose lives have been changed forever by the protests in Belarus

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