A Belarusian dissident danced and made heart signs from inside a cage as she went on trial for anti-regime activities for which she faces a 12-year prison sentence.
Maria Kolesnikova, a protest organiser, and Maksim Znak, an opposition lawyer, were key leaders in the Belarusian opposition movement against the regime of President Alexander Lukashenko that exploded last year after widely panned elections.
They appeared in a Minsk courtroom on Wednesday on charges that have not been fully explained due to the secret status of the national security court. Prosecutors have indicated both face 12-year sentences for “incitement to undermine national security.”
But despite the threats, Kolesnikova, who famously tore up her passport rather than be deported like many other opposition figures, was seen smiling, dancing and making heart gestures, one of the symbols of the anti-Lukashenko movement, from behind a glass-screened cage.
Lukashenko, in power since 1994 and widely regarded as Europe’s last dictator, denounced the opposition movement after supposedly winning re-election last August in elections that were widely derided as fixed. His popularity has badly slipped over the decades as the country’s economy turned to the technology sector, which enabled a new generation of middle class tech workers to oppose the regime.
Both Kolesnikova and Znak serve on the opposition National Coordination Council, established by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the opposition’s exiled leader who replaced her husband in last year’s disputed elections after he was arrested. Tikhanovskaya has travelled the world for meetings with various leaders since last summer, to build support for the opposition movement. But backed by the support of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Lukashenko seems no closer to leaving office than he did last summer when the protests began.
In June, Belarus infuriated much of Europe after a complex covert operation to force an Ryanair jetliner flying from Greece to Lithuania to land as it overflew Belarus so police could arrest dissident journalist Roman Protasevich, who had fled the country last year.
Another activist, Vitaly Shishov, who ran an NGO that helped relocate dissidents fleeing Belarus for Ukraine, was found hanged in a Kyiv park Tuesday morning. Police in Ukraine said his death would be investigated as a potential murder case.