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A court in Belarus sentenced two leading opposition activists to decade-long prison sentences on Monday for leading a protest movement against the country’s strongman president Alexander Lukashenko.
Maria Kolesnikova masterminded a campaign against Lukashenko in last year’s presidential election and then led protests against his dubious landslide victory. She was sentenced to 11 years in prison at a closed trial in Minsk, Belarus’s capital.
Maxim Znak, a lawyer who served with Kolesnikova on an opposition leadership council, was sentenced to 10 years in a maximum-security facility on the same charges, which included “plotting to seize state power unconstitutionally” and “creating an extremist group”.
The punishments indicate how Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus with an iron fist since 1994, has used force to secure his hold on the nation of 9.5m after the protests rattled his rule last year.
Security forces dispersed rallies calling for Lukashenko to hand over power — the largest of which attracted about 200,000 people — and arrested 35,000 protesters. Many said they were beaten and tortured while in custody. Human rights groups estimate that Belarus is holding more than 650 political prisoners.
The crackdown has made Lukashenko, who accused the west of trying to engineer his downfall or assassinate him, an international pariah and driven him into the arms of his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.
The US and EU refused to recognise the election result, which gave Lukashenko 80 per cent of the vote. They also sanctioned Belarus for the post-election violence and for forcing the landing of a Ryanair flight carrying a prominent dissident blogger.
On Monday the EU said it “deplores the continuous blatant disrespect by the Minsk regime of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of the people of Belarus” and called for the activists’ release.
“The EU will continue its efforts to promote accountability for the brutal repression by the Belarusian authorities,” the bloc added in a statement.
Putin and Lukashenko, whose relationship had hitherto been frosty, have met five times since the protests and held several phone calls to discuss strengthening ties.
The two presidents plan to sign a “road map” of secretly negotiated integration plans in Moscow on Thursday, then observe major joint military exercises on the countries’ borders with the EU.
A former flautist in Belarus’s philharmonic orchestra, Kolesnikova, 39, was a campaign manager for former banker Viktor Babariko. He is in prison after being sentenced to 14 years’ imprisonment for bribery and tax evasion.
After Babariko and several other opposition candidates were barred from running, Kolesnikova joined forces with Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the wife of another jailed presidential contender, to mount a surprising challenge to Lukashenko.
Tsikhanouskaya claimed to have won the vote but fled Belarus days later, saying the country’s feared KGB had threatened her family.
When masked men bundled Kolesnikova into a van, drove her to Belarus’s border with Ukraine and told her she would have to leave “alive or in pieces”, she ripped up her passport so they could not deport her.
“We demand the immediate release of Maria & Maksim, who aren’t guilty of anything,” Tskihanouskaya wrote on Twitter. “It’s terror against Belarusians who dare to stand up to the regime.”