MOSCOW — A Belarusian court on Monday sentenced Maria Kolesnikova, a leading opposition figure who last year tried to run for president, to an 11-year prison sentence, another sign that President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko is pursuing an unrelenting crackdown on dissent following a heavily disputed election.
Ms. Kolesnikova and her colleague, Maksim Znak, a lawyer, were charged with extremism, conspiring to to seize power illegally, and damaging state security. The trial was held in the capital, Minsk, behind closed doors, and neither the investigators nor the witnesses were publicly disclosed. Both defendants denied wrongdoing and said the verdict was politically motivated.
Mr. Znak, who like Ms. Kolesnikova is a leading member of a coordinating council organized by opponents of Mr. Lukashenko, received a 10-year sentence in a maximum security penal colony.
“This verdict is illegal and unfounded,’’ said the pair’s lawyer, Yevgeny Pylchenko, announcing an appeal. “It is not based on evidence. During the trial, neither their guilt, nor even the commission of the crimes imputed, was confirmed.”
Ms. Kolesnikova became one of Belarus’ most prominent opposition leaders last year when she decided to run after a prominent banker, Viktor Babariko, whose campaign she managed, was barred from running and thrown in jail. She eventually threw her support behind Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who entered the race after her husband, a prominent video blogger, was also arrested and barred from running.
- Belarus in the spotlight. The forced landing of a commercial flight on Sunday, is being seen by several countries as a state hijacking called for by its strongman president, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko.
- Election results and protest. It came less than a year after Belarusians were met with a violent police crackdown when they protested the results of an election that many Western governments derided as a sham.
- Forced plane landing. The Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania, was diverted to Minsk with the goal of detaining Roman Protasevich, a 26-year-old dissident journalist.
- Who is Roman Protasevich? In a video released by the government, Mr. Protasevich confessed to taking part in organizing “mass unrest” last year, but friends say the confession was made under duress.
In an election denounced by opponents and the West as a sham, Mr. Lukashenko claimed to have won a sixth consecutive term in August 2020, setting off months of protest. He has wielded ironclad control over Belarus since first gaining the presidency in 1994, including over the judiciary.
“Today our courts did not pass the most basic test,” Aleksandr Kolesnikov, Ms. Kolesnikova’s father, told journalists and supporters outside the court. He said the verdict was a “signal” that the government had no intention of changing its approach to those who disagree with it.
Ms. Kolesnikova, 39, was a flutist and cultural curator who studied Baroque music in Stuttgart, Germany, before returning to Minsk to set up a cultural center and getting involved in politics. Mr. Znak, 40, is a prominent arbitration lawyer who once lived in Oklahoma as a student.
Last year, Ms. Kolesnikova aligned herself with Ms. Tikhanovskaya and Veronika Tsepkalo, whose husband, Valery, had also been barred from the ballot and fled Belarus before election day. Dismissed by the dictator as “poor things,” the three women donned white and red outfits, drawing tens of thousands of supporters to their pre-election rallies.
In the days after the disputed vote, Ms. Tikhanovskaya and Ms. Tsepkalo both went abroad in murky circumstances. Ms. Kolesnikova was kidnapped by masked men on Sept. 8 last year and taken to the country’s border with Ukraine, but she resisted attempts to forcibly deport her by ripping up her passport, jumping out of the car she was in, and walking back onto Belarusian territory.
“We demand the immediate release of Maria & Maksim, who aren’t guilty of anything,” Ms. Tikhanovskaya, who emerged as the opposition leader in exile and is now living in Lithuania, wrote on Twitter. “It’s terror against Belarusians who dare to stand up to the regime.”
Despite 11 months behind bars, Ms. Kolesnikova has sought to project an indomitable spirit, sending positive letters from prison to relatives and supporters. When she appeared in court on Monday morning, in a glass cage with Mr. Znak, she contorted her handcuffed hands to form the shape of a heart, one of her trademark messages during the campaign last summer.
In the days before her trial began last month, Ms. Kolesnikova wrote that the authorities offered to negotiate her release from custody if she sought a pardon or appeared repentant on state television. She said she rejected the offer because she was innocent.
No one besides the lawyers could be present when Ms. Kolesnikova and Mr. Znak made their closing remarks last week. But according to the aides of Mr. Babariko, whose campaign Ms. Kolesnikova had managed, she spoke at length about “moral choice, conscience, respect and love for people” and called for the rule of law to be implemented in her country.
“No matter how the word “democracy” sounds on television, one cannot ignore what is written about our country in the Constitution,” she reportedly said.
An estimated tens of thousands of opposition supporters have fled Belarus after the crackdown that began last year. The government’s campaign of retribution has only intensified in that time. In May, authorities scrambled a fighter jet to bring down a plane carrying a prominent blogger, Roman Protasevich, and then detained him. The authorities arrested a law graduate after she gave a graduation address in July calling on respect for the rule of law.
And in August, the government banned athletes from competing in sporting events abroad after a 24-year-old sprinter criticized her coaches at this summer’s Olympics, generating an international scandal.
“The persecution and imprisonment of Maria Kolesnikova and Maksim Znak is intended to destroy the hopes of millions of people on whose behalf they spoke — a whole generation of Belarusians who strive to ensure that peaceful changes take place in their country and that human rights are respected in it,” Bruce Millar, deputy director of Amnesty International for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, said in a statement.