West Condemns Belarus After Two Opposition Activists Handed Harsh Jail Terms

MINSK -- Two leading Belarusian opposition figures, Maryya Kalesnikava and Maksim Znak, have been handed lengthy prison sentences on conspiracy charges the United States has called "manufactured" amid an ongoing crackdown on pro-democracy activists and groups by authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

Kalesnikava was sentenced to 11 years in prison on September 6, while Znak was given 10 years in prison after being found guilty on charges of conspiracy to seize power, calls for action to damage national security, and calls for actions damaging national security by trying to create an extremist group.

Western reaction to the harsh sentences was quick, with the European Union calling them a "blatant disrespect" of human rights, while the United Kingdom decried Minsk's "assault on the defenders of democracy and freedom" and Germany described the sentences as "unjustified."

The two defendants, who are members of the opposition Coordination Council, have rejected the charges, which stem from their calls for protests against the official election results of August 2020, as politically motivated.

Video footage on social media showed the two defendants in a glass cage just ahead of the verdict, with Kalesnikava raising her handcuffed hands and making her trademark heart sign as she smiled for the cameras.

"We demand the immediate release of Maryya & Maksim, who aren't guilty of anything. It's terror against Belarusians who dare to stand up to the regime," opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who was forced from the country over security concerns, said in a tweet immediately following the verdict.

Viktor Babaryka, another senior opposition figure who was convicted in July and given 14 years in prison on similar charges, said on his Telegram channel that the sentences of Kalesnikava and Znak will be appealed.

"The EU deplores the continuous blatant disrespect by the Minsk regime of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of the people of Belarus," an EU foreign-policy spokesperson said in a statement.

Kalesnikava was arrested on September 7 in Minsk by masked men and taken to the Ukrainian border the next day along with two associates. Ordered to cross the border, Kalesnikava refused, tearing up her passport instead. She was then taken back to Minsk and jailed.

German Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Andrea Sasse told reporters the verdicts were an example of the "ruthless continuation of oppression and intimidation by the Belarus regime against opposition politicians and civil society."

"The German government condemns the unjustified verdict against Maryya Kalesnikava and Maksim Znak and the instrumentalization of the justice system for political repression in Belarus," she said.

The ongoing crackdown started after the presidential election awarded Lukashenka a sixth term, sparking an unprecedented wave of protests amid allegations the vote was rigged.

Mass protests against Lukashenka were met with the heavy-handed, and sometimes violent, detention of tens of thousands of people. Much of the opposition leadership has been jailed or forced into exile.

Several protesters have been killed and thousands arrested during mass demonstrations demanding Lukashenka's resignation. There have also been what human rights groups call credible reports of torture in the crackdown.

"Deplorable that kangaroo court in #Belarus has sentenced two freedom fighters -- Maria #Kolesnikova and Maxim #Znak to 11 and 10 years respectively. Their sentences must be reversed and they must be freed immediately," Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics said on Twitter.

Several Western governments and the European Union have imposed several rounds of sanctions on Lukashenka and his regime over the treatment of opposition activists and the independent media.

Still, he has shown no signs of stepping down and maintains the backing of key ally and creditor Russia as the authorities seek to wipe out any remaining pockets of dissent.

After the announcement of the verdict and sentence, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said Lukashenka's regime "must halt this repression and release all political detainees."

Kalesnikava was recently shortlisted for the Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize, which is awarded each year by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe to honor "outstanding" civil society work in the defense of human rights.

With reporting by Reuters and AFP