“Freedom is worth fighting for”: prominent Belarusian dissidents on trial
The trial of Maria Kolesnikova and Maxim Znak, both Belarusian opposition leaders, continued behind closed doors on Thursday at the Minsk Regional Court.
The trial, which began on Wednesday, takes place amid an intensified crackdown on dissent in the former Soviet nation that has been rocked by months of protests against a contested presidential election.
Kolesnikova, a senior official of the Opposition Coordination Council, has been in detention since her arrest in September. She is accused of conspiring to seize power, creating an extremist organization and calling for actions that undermine state security.
Znak, another leading member of the Coordination Council, faces the same charges. They face up to 12 years in prison if found guilty.
Kolesnikova, who helped coordinate opposition protests that erupted after a presidential vote in August 2020, resisted authorities’ attempts to force her out of the country. When Belarusian security agency agents drove her to the border with Ukraine in September to forcibly deport her, she tore up her passport and returned to Belarus to be arrested.
“Freedom is worth fighting for. Don’t be afraid to be free, ”she wrote last year in the prison message sent by her lawyer. “I have no regrets and would do the same again. “
Just before her trial began, Kolesnikova said in a prison memo that authorities offered to release her if she asked for a pardon and gave a repentant interview to state media. She insisted she was innocent and rejected the offer.
Just as Kolesnikova and Znak were on trial, a Belarusian Olympic sprinter flew from Tokyo to Europe after resisting an attempt by her team officials to force her home in Belarus after a dispute over the coaching. 24-year-old runner Krystsina Tsimanouskaya said she could be in danger if she returned to her homeland.
Belarus has been rocked by months of protests fueled by the granting of a sixth term to President Alexander Lukashenko after the August 2020 presidential vote that the opposition and the West denounced as a sham. He responded to the protests with a massive crackdown that saw more than 35,000 people arrested and thousands beaten by police.
Authorities have stepped up their crackdown on dissent in recent weeks, targeting independent journalists and democracy activists in hundreds of raids.
Belarusian state security agency which still bears its Soviet-era KGB name on Wednesday arrested Uladzimir Matskevich, a philosophy professor who founded a leading independent university, after raiding his apartment in Minsk.
Matskevich’s colleague Tatsiana Vadalazhskaya, who was a member of the Opposition Coordination Council, and Ulad Vialichka, the former head of the non-governmental organization EuroBelarus, were also arrested following searches of their apartments.
Human rights center Viasna said authorities accused them of undermining state security and inciting unrest.
On Tuesday Vitaly Shishov, a Belarusian activist who led a group in Ukraine helping Belarusians fleeing persecution, was found hanged in a park in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev.
Ukrainian police have opened an investigation to determine whether it was a suicide or a murder masquerading as suicide.