Belarus: Maryia Kalesnikava and Maksim Znak sentenced to jail over historic protests

Today’s sentencing of Maryia Kalesnikava, the public face of the 2020 peaceful protests in Belarus, and her close associate, lawyer Maksim Znak, to 11 and 10 years in prison respectively, is a disaster for freedom of expression in Belarus, said Bruce Millar, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

“The prosecution and imprisonment of Maryia Kalesnikava and Maksim Znak by the authorities is designed to crush the hopes of the millions of people they spoke for — a generation of Belarusians who aspire for peaceful change and respect of human rights. These courageous individuals are now set to spend much of their lives in prison for standing up against Alyaksandr Lukashenka and his government’s repressive forces.

“No one will forget the bravery of Mariya’s decision to remain in Belarus, despite the threat of a long prison sentence against her, which has now been realized. Her unwavering belief in freedom of expression and human dignity has been a beacon of light for people around the world. What Mariya and Maksim symbolize and stand for will outlast anything that the authorities throw at them.

“Nevertheless, this injustice must be overturned. We call for the immediate release of Maryia Kalesnikava, Maksim Znak and hundreds of other people who have been detained in Belarus solely for exercising their human rights. The international community must do all it can to put pressure on Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s government to stop the barbaric crackdown on civil society and dissent in Belarus.”


Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets across Belarus to protest the results of the widely disputed presidential election on 9 August 2020. The incumbent Alyaksandr Lukashenka claimed a landslide victory, while Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya – now exiled – emerged as a popular candidate for protest voters. Maryia Kalesnikava was her closest companion during the election campaign, and an informal leader of the peaceful protests that followed.

Mariya Kalesnikava was abducted in Minsk on 7 September 2020 by men in plain clothes, brought to the border with Ukraine and told to leave the country. She refused to do so and tore up her passport in defiance. In response, the Belarusian authorities brought trumped-up charges against her and Maksim Znak, who was arrested two days later.

On 6 September 2021, the Minsk Regional Court sentenced Maryia Kalesnikava and Maksim Znak, members of the opposition Coordinating Council and associates of the jailed presidential contender Viktar Babaryka, to 11 and 10 years, respectively. Their swift trial, which began on 4 August, was closed to the public, and all proceedings and case materials were classified. All participants in the trial, including lawyers, had to sign a nondisclosure agreement. It is manifestly clear that neither Mariya Kalesnikava nor Maksim Znak have committed any recognizable crime, and both have firmly maintained their innocence. Kalesnikava and Znak were found guilty of “conspiracy to seize power by unconstitutional means” (Article 357(1) of the Criminal Code), “creation and leading of an extremist organization” (Article 361-1(1)) and “calls for actions aimed at causing harm to national security” (Article 361(3)) using mass media and the Internet.