1 A court in Belarus sentenced one of the country’s most prominent opposition figures, Maria Kolesnikova, to 11 years in prison on Monday after she led unprecedented protests against President Alexander Lukashenko last year.
2 A defiant Kolesnikova smiled and made her signature heart-shaped hand symbol during the court hearing in Minsk, where the lawyer and fellow opposition activist Maxim Znak was also handed a 10-year sentence.
3 During the closed-door trial, authorities had accused the pair of violating national security and conspiring to seize power.
4 Kolesnikova, 39, is the only major leader of last year’s mass protests still in Belarus and has been in custody for a year after resisting deportation by ripping up her passport.
5 Lukashenko, in power since 1994, has been cracking down on opponents since the protests, which erupted when he claimed victory in a disputed election.
6 A video from inside the courtroom showed the handcuffed pair grinning in the defendant’s cage ahead of the ruling.
7 ‘Blatant disrespect’
Kolesnikova — who wore her trademark dark red lipstick and a black dress — made the heart-shaped symbol with her hands, which she often did at protest rallies.
8 Standing next to her, Znak pretended he was inviting an audience into a theatre.
9 “Dear spectators, we are happy to see you,” said the 40-year-old said.
11 Amnesty International said it was “designed to crush the hopes” of a generation of Belarusians.
12 Kolesnikova — a former flute player in the country’s philharmonic orchestra — has become a symbol of the protest movement in Belarus.
13 She had danced inside the court when the trial, which authorities said had to be closed because it contained state secrets, opened last month.
15 She resisted the attempt to throw her out of the country by reportedly jumping out of the car.
16 Kolesnikova was part of a female trio of protest leaders along with Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and Veronika Tsepkalo, both of whom fled the country.
17 Tikhanovskaya, who stood for president in place of her jailed husband and claims she won the election, called the pair “heroes” after the sentencing.
20 Kolesnikova and Znak had worked for Babaryko, who in July was jailed for 14 years on fraud charges.
21 “Maria and Max went through all the stages of political persecution with dignity,” Babaryko’s office said in a statement.
22 Impassioned address
It quoted Kolesnikova’s lawyer saying she delivered an impassioned final address to the court last week about the “future of a free Belarus”.
23 Kolesnikova and Znak were part of a seven-member Coordination Council set up in response to the disputed August election to oversee a peaceful transition of power.
24 Western countries have piled sanctions on Lukashenko’s regime over the treatment of opposition activists at home and abroad.
25 According to local rights group Viasna there were 659 political prisoners in Belarus as of Monday, including Znak and Kolesnikova.
26 Lukashenko faced a global outcry in May when a passenger plane was forced to land in Minsk and a dissident onboard was arrested.
27 Belarus was again in the international spotlight in August, after an athlete said her team tried to force her to leave the Tokyo Olympics and an exiled opposition activist was found hanged in a park in Ukraine.