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Last protest leader still in Belarus goes on trial accused of ‘conspiring to steal power’

Lukashenko has been cracking down on opponents since protests erupted last year following ‘unfair’ elections.

MARIA KOLENIKOVA, THE last remaining protest leader still in Belarus, has gone on trial after 10 months in custody as the regime of Alexander Lukashenko seeks to crush all dissent.

In power since 1994, Lukashenko has been cracking down on opponents since unprecedented protests erupted after last year’s elections, deemed unfair by the West.

The start of the high-profile trial comes as regime critics accuse the Belarusian regime of killing a dissident in neighbouring Ukraine and trying to forcibly bring an Olympic athlete home from Tokyo.

Kolesnikova, a 39-year-old former flute player in the country’s philharmonic orchestra, has become a symbol of the protest movement in Belarus.

Together with opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and another campaign partner, Veronika Tsepkalo, Kolesnikova led last summer’s rallies against Lukashenko.

Kolesnikova, who had said she would not leave Belarus voluntarily, was arrested last September as she tore up her passport to resist deportation to Ukraine.

Today, Kolesnikova and her lawyer Maxim Znak appeared at a closed court in the Belarusian capital.

The pair are accused of undermining national security, conspiring to seize power and creating an extremist group. They face up to 12 years in prison if convicted.

Dancing in court

In a video from inside the court, Kolesnikova, wearing a black dress and her signature red lipstick, was seen dancing and smiling  next to Znak inside the defendant cage.

She also made a heart-shaped symbol with her hands, which she often did at protest rallies.

Kolesnikova is the only protest leader still in Belarus.

Tikhanovskaya, who stood for president in place of her jailed husband, was forced out of the country and granted refuge in EU member Lithuania. Tsepkalo also left Belarus.

Together the three women inspired a wave of female protests in the country condemned by Amnesty International for its treatment of women activists.

“We miss Masha and Maksim so much!” Tikhanovskaya said on her Twitter on Wednesday, using their diminutives.

“Soon they will be home, like all those imprisoned on political grounds.”

When Kolesnikova was arrested last September, members of the KGB security service put a sack over her head, pushed her into a minibus and droved her to the Ukraine border, she said. She jumped out of a car window and tore up her passport, refusing to leave the country.

Kolesnikova and Znak had previously worked for presidential hopeful Viktor Babaryko, who was sentenced to 14 years in prison on fraud charges last month.

They were both part of a seven-member Coordination Council, set up in response to the disputed August election to oversee the peaceful transition of power, that also included Nobel Prize-winning writer Svetlana Alexievich.


The opposition believes Tikhanovskaya was the real winner in the August vote.

She has urged the West to toughen sanctions against Lukashenko’s regime, and met with US President Joe Biden last week and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday.

The UN’s human rights spokeswoman Marta Hurtado said Tuesday that the situation in Belarus “is clearly deteriorating”.

A Belarusian dissident, Vitaly Shishov, was found hanged in a park in the Ukrainian capital Kiev on Tuesday, with supporters accusing the regime of killing him.

Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya said her team tried to forcibly send her back to the authoritarian country from the Tokyo Olympics on political orders. On Wednesday, she flew out of Japan and was due to stopover in Vienna en route to refuge in Poland.

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