Belarus protest leader Kolesnikova goes on trial

Maria Kolesnikova, a 39-year-old former flute player in the country's philharmonic orchestra, has become a symbol of the protest movement in Belarus.

In this file photo taken on 24 August 2020 opposition figure Maria Kolesnikova, a member of the Coordination Council formed by the opposition to oversee efforts for a peaceful transition of power, attends a press conference on the 16th day of protests over disputed presidential elections results in Minsk. Picture: AFP.

MOSCOW - Maria Kolesnikova, the last remaining protest leader still in Belarus, went on trial on Wednesday after 10 months in custody as the regime of Alexander Lukashenko seeks to crush all dissent.

In power since 1994, Lukashenko has been cracking down on opponents since unprecedented protests erupted after last year's elections, deemed unfair by the West. Kolesnikova, a 39-year-old former flute player in the country's philharmonic orchestra, has become a symbol of the protest movement in Belarus.

Together with opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and another campaign partner, Veronika Tsepkalo, Kolesnikova led last summer's rallies against Lukashenko.

She had said she would not leave Belarus voluntarily and was arrested last September as she tore up her passport to resist deportation to neighbouring Ukraine.

On Wednesday, Kolesnikova and her lawyer Maxim Znak appeared at a closed court in the Belarusian capital, state news agency Belta reported.

The pair are accused of undermining national security, conspiring to seize power and creating an extremist group. They face up to 12 years in prison if convicted.

In a video from inside the court, Kolesnikova, wearing a black dress and her signature red lipstick, was seen dancing and smiling next to Znak inside the defendant cage.

She also made a heart-shaped symbol with her hands, which she often did at protest rallies. Kolesnikova is the only protest leader still in Belarus. Tikhanovskaya, who stood for president in place of her jailed husband, was forced out of the country and granted refuge in EU member Lithuania. Tsepkalo also left Belarus.

Kolesnikova and Znak had previously worked for presidential hopeful Viktor Babaryko, who was sentenced to 14 years in prison on fraud charges last month. The opposition believe Tikhanovskaya was the real winner in the August vote.

She has urged the West to toughen sanctions against Lukashenko's regime and met with US President Joe Biden last week and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday.

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