Music Maria Kalesnikava, one of the main opponents of the Belarusian dictatorship, was sentenced this Monday (6) to 11 years in jail. Kalesnikava, 39, was part of the trio of women who led a front against dictator Aleksandr Lukachenko in the 2020 presidential election.
In the same trial, held behind closed doors, lawyer Maksim Znak, 40, was sentenced to 10 years in maximum security prison. Both were part of the leadership of the transition committee, created just last year to try to negotiate with the dictatorship the holding of new fair and free elections.
Both can appeal the sentence.
Kalesnikava had been imprisoned since 8 September last year, when she escaped through a car window and tore up her passport to avoid a forced expulsion from Belarus. The day before, she had been kidnapped while walking in Minsk and interrogated by agents of the KGB, Belarus secret police.
Znak was arrested on 9 September. The two are on the list of 659 political prisoners counted this Monday by the human rights organization Viazna.
They were convicted of “conspiracy with the aim of unconstitutionally seizing or retaining state power”, “publicly encouraging the seizure of state power, or forced change of the constitutional order” and “creating or leading an extremist organization”.
According to the prosecution, who had asked for 12 years in jail for the two, they attempted an “illegal power shift” by promoting mass protests “as a tool to achieve goals and create a climate of protest among participants.”
“Repeatedly, directly and covertly, they have asked for recognition of the elections as invalid and the head of state as an illegitimate exercise,” the Prosecutor’s Office said in a statement.
Demonstrations in Belarus began spontaneously on presidential election night, Aug. 9, when the electoral commission announced that Lukachenko had been re-elected for a sixth term, with 80% of the vote.
The dictatorship claimed that the main independent candidate, Svetlana Tikhanovskaia — who formed a trio with Kalesnikava and Veronika Tsipkalo — had won just over 10% of the vote, which was seen as fraud by the protesters.
The protest was severely repressed by the police, triggering new demonstrations, which lasted for several weeks. Since then, the dictatorship has detained tens of thousands of people for participating in illegal events — acts can only be carried out with the permission of the regime — more than 500 cases of torture have been documented by national and international bodies.
In an interview with Russian independent broadcaster Dozhd before the trial, Kalesnikava called the accusation against her and Znak “absurd”: “It is proof of the lawlessness of the police state.”
According to the defense of Kalesnikava and Znak, during the trial they maintained their position that the elections were rigged and denied a conspiracy to illegally overthrow the dictatorship. Kalesnikava sang during several of the sessions, according to his supporters — among the songs were songs by the Beatles by Ella Fitzgerald and the “Aria of Lensky” from the opera “Ievgueni Oniéguin” by Russian Tchaikovsky.
A video posted on a social network shows the music smiling and dancing during the trial. The activists’ objective, according to the defense, was to maintain the spirit of opponents of the dictatorship.
Kalesnikava was last year the head of election campaign communications for Lukachenko’s most popular rival, Viktor Babariko, 57, also sentenced by the dictatorship to 14 years in prison.
When he was arrested by the dictatorship, in June of last year, Babariko had already secured 435,000 signatures in support of his candidacy for president, more than four times what was necessary.
The plateau had never been reached by an opponent since Lukachenko took power in 1994 in the first — and only free — post-USSR election.
Even after his arrest, the former candidate maintained his popularity — independent polls are nearly impossible in Belarus, but a January online survey by the NGO Chatham House placed him at the top of popular support, with 28.8% of citations.
Last year, Babariko and Kalesnikava announced the formation of a new party, Vmeste (together, in Russian). The forecast was to formally register the legend in May of this year, but the growing political repression by the dictatorship frustrated the plans.