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Belarus: Leading opposition figures sentenced to jail for peaceful protests

Riot police in Belarus
Riot police in Belarus © Valery Sharifulin/TASS

Maryia Kalesnikava and Maksim Znak sentenced to 11 and 10 years respectively

‘[Mariya and Maksim’s sentences are] designed to crush the hopes of the millions of people they spoke for’ - Bruce Millar

Today’s sentencing of Maryia Kalesnikava, the face of last year’s peaceful protests in Belarus, and her close associate, lawyer Maksim Znak is a disaster for freedom of expression in Belarus, said Amnesty International. The Minsk Regional Court sentenced Maryia and Maksim to 11 and 10 years, respectively.

Bruce Millar, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia. 

“The prosecution and imprisonment of Maryia Kalesnikava and Maksim Znak by the authorities is designed to crush the hopes of the millions of people they spoke for - a generation of Belarusians who aspire for peaceful change and respect of human rights.

“These courageous individuals are now set to spend much of their lives in prison for standing up against Alexander Lukashenko and his government’s repressive forces. 

“No one will forget the bravery of Mariya’s decision to remain in Belarus. Her unwavering belief in freedom of expression and human dignity has been a beacon of light for people around the world. What Mariya and Maksim symbolise and stand for will outlast anything that the authorities throw at them. 

“Nevertheless, this injustice must be overturned. We call for the immediate release of Maryia, Maksim and hundreds of other people who have been detained in Belarus solely for exercising their human rights.

“The international community must do all it can to put pressure on Lukashenko’s government to stop the barbaric crackdown on civil society and dissent in Belarus.” 

A year of trial and tribulation

Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets across Belarus to protest the results of the widely disputed presidential election on 9 August 2020.

The incumbent Alexander Lukashenko claimed a landslide victory, while Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya – now exiled – emerged as a popular candidate for protest voters. Maryia Kalesnikava was her closest companion during the election campaign, and an informal leader of the peaceful protests that followed.  

Mariya was abducted in Minsk early September last year by men in plain clothes, brought to the border with Ukraine and told to leave the country. She refused and tore up her passport in defiance. In response, the Belarusian authorities brought trumped-up charges against her and Maksim Znak, who was arrested two days later.

Their swift trial, which began on 4 August, was closed to the public, and all proceedings and case materials were classified. All participants in the trial, including lawyers, had to sign a nondisclosure agreement.

It is clear that neither Mariya nor Maksim have committed any recognisable crime, and both have firmly maintained their innocence.

Mariya and Maksim were found guilty of “conspiracy to seize power by unconstitutional means” (Article 357(1) of the Criminal Code), “creation and leading of an extremist organisation” (Article 361-1(1)) and “calls for actions aimed at causing harm to national security” (Article 361(3)) using mass media and the Internet. 

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