Maria Kolesnikova, one of Belarus’ most prominent opposition members, was sentenced to 11 years in prison on Monday by a Belarusian court after she spearheaded huge protests against President Alexander Lukashenko last year.
During the court hearing in Minsk, where lawyer and fellow opposition activist Maxim Znak was also sentenced to ten years, a feisty Kolesnikova smiled and made her distinctive heart-shaped hand gesture.
Authorities accused the two of breaking national security and plotting to seize power during the closed-door trial.
Kolesnikova, 39, is the sole prominent leader of last year’s large rallies who is still in Belarus, and she has been detained for a year after ripping up her passport to avoid deportation.
Since the protests began after he claimed victory in a dubious election, Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, has been cracking down on opponents.
Before the ruling, a video from inside the courthouse showed the handcuffed couple smirking in the defendant’s cage.
Kolesnikova, who was dressed in a black dress and wearing her usual dark red lipstick, drew a heart-shaped gesture with her hands, as she typically did at protest rallies.
Znak pretended to be inviting an audience into a theatre while standing next to her.
“We are delighted to see you, dear spectators,” the 40-year-old remarked.
The EU slammed the decision as a “blatant disregard” for human rights, while Britain called it a “attack on democracy’s defenders.”
The US State Department noted, “Regrettably, these sentencings are further proof of the regime’s utter contempt for the people of Belarus’ human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
The verdict, according to Amnesty International, was “intended to destroy the expectations” of a generation of Belarusians.
Kolesnikova, a former member of Belarus’ philharmonic orchestra, has become a symbol of the country’s protest movement.
When the trial began last month, she danced inside the defendant cage, which authorities said had to be closed since it contained national secrets.
Agents from the KGB put a sack over her head, stuffed her into a minibus, and drove her to the Ukrainian border in September.
By shredding up her passport, she fought the attempt to deport her from the nation.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and Veronika Tsepkalo, both of whom departed the country, were part of a female trio of protest leaders, including Kolesnikova.
After the sentencing, Tikhanovskaya, who ran for president in lieu of her imprisoned husband and claimed to have won, dubbed the duo “heroes.”
“The administration wants us to see them beaten down and worn out. But have a look at them: they’re laughing and dancing “On Twitter, Tikhanovskaya, who is now stationed in Lithuania, stated.
Photos of some of Viktor Babaryko’s supporters lining up outside the Minsk court were published by the office of Viktor Babaryko, whose campaign was organized by Kolesnikova.
Babaryko, who was sentenced to 14 years in prison in July on fraud charges, employed Kolesnikova and Znak.
In a statement, Babaryko’s office said, “Maria and Max suffered through all stages of political persecution with dignity.”
According to the report, Kolesnikova’s lawyer said she gave an impassioned final address to the court last week regarding the “future of a free Belarus.”
Kolesnikova and Znak were members of a seven-member Coordination Council formed in the aftermath of the disputed August election to ensure a smooth handover of power.
Over the persecution of opposition activists, Western countries have imposed sanctions on Lukashenko’s regime.
However, the moustachioed strongman has showed no signs of stepping down and retains Russia’s support.
He is scheduled to meet with Kremlin boss Vladimir Putin this week in Moscow.
As of Monday, there were 659 political prisoners in Belarus, according to the rights group Viasna, including Kolesnikova and Znak.
When a passenger airliner was forced to land in Minsk and a dissident on board was arrested in May, Lukashenko faced international condemnation.
In August, Belarus was thrust back into the public spotlight after one athlete claimed her team tried to persuade her to withdraw from the Tokyo Olympics, and an exiled opposition leader was discovered hanging in a Ukrainian park.