Maria Kolesnikova, one of Belarus’ top opposition leaders, who helped lead massive protests against authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko last year, has been sentenced to 11 years in jail by a court in Minsk on Monday. Last September, security forces abducted her off the streets in the capital Minsk and then drove her to the border with Ukraine, where they tried to forcibly deport her. She refused to go. Kolesnikova had been a professional flute player before getting involved in politics for the first time last year. Another prominent activist, Maxim Znak, was sentenced after being convicted on charges of extremism and illegally trying to seize power. He and Kolesnikova were members of the opposition’s Coordination Council that was founded during the protests to demand a peaceful handover of power from Lukashenko. Most independent media and human rights groups have been shut down and hundreds arrested with dozens already sentenced.
Secretary of State Anthony Blinken in the U.S. condemned the sentences and for the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners. President Lukashenko, who denied electoral fraud, has faced sanctions from the US and other Western governments since claiming victory and launching a crackdown against opponents last year. The US and several European countries have issued statements condemning the court ruling and continued efforts to silence government opponents. Germany on Monday promised to intensify pressure against the Belarusian regime if it does not change its behaviour towards civil rights.