Protest organiser Maria Kolesnikova was jailed for 11 years while lawyer Maxim Znak received 10 years.

Two leading opposition figures who challenged Belarus’s discredited presidential polls have been jailed for trying to threaten national security and seize power.

Protest organiser Maria Kolesnikova was jailed for 11 years while lawyer Maxim Znak received 10 years.

They joined an opposition council after President Alexander Lukashenko claimed victory in 2020’s disputed election.

Prosecutors accused the council of trying to stage a coup.

On Monday, a court in Minsk, the capital, found Kolesnikova and Znak guilty of crimes including plotting to seize power, threatening national security and extremism.

They both denied the charges against them and denounced the trial as a sham. Their lawyers said they would appeal against the verdict.

For months, Belarusians protested against the August 2020 vote, denounced by the EU, US and UK as neither free nor fair.

Tens of thousands of protesters were detained and many were brutally beaten, as Mr Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, tried to silence dissent.

Independent journalists and activists have been arrested in a crackdown that continues a year later, with some 650 political prisoners in detention, activists say.

A protest in Belarus
image captionBelarus was gripped by mass protests last year, triggered by an election widely seen as rigged
The head of Belarus’s opposition, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, was forced into exile in Lithuania the day after she claimed victory in the presidential election.

In contrast, her opposition colleague, Kolesnikova, resisted attempts to have her thrown out of Belarus, tearing up her passport, after she was seen being bundled into a vehicle in Minsk.

Weeks later, she was charged with incitement to undermine national security.

Fear and violence in the jails of Belarus
Belarus crackdown fails to crush opposition spirit
Kolesnikova has already been behind bars for over 11 months. As she appeared in court for sentencing on Monday, she smiled at state TV cameras, and made heart shapes with her hands.

A flute player in the country’s philharmonic orchestra, she has become a symbol of the protest movement in Belarus.

Guilty verdict no surprise
Analysis box by Sarah Rainsford, Moscow correspondent
This guilty verdict was no surprise. Kolesnikova and Znak were central to a mass wave of protests last year against President Lukashenko, and against an election many Belarusians believe was rigged.

So the pair’s team say they’re being punished for their politics.

In court today, Kolesnikova was typically defiant, smiling and making her trademark heart shape with cuffed hands.

Since her arrest, the protests have faded. It’s too dangerous now. But outside court on Monday, a long line of supporters came to show their solidarity.

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