Belarus prosecutors seek 12 years in jail for protest leader Maria Kolesnikova

Prosecutors in Belarus requested 12 years in jail for protest leader Maria Kolesnikova, who challenged President Alexander Lukashenko last year by calling for demonstrations against his authoritarian rule, her allies said Tuesday.

In power since 1994, Lukashenko has been cracking down on dissent in the ex-Soviet country since unprecedented protests erupted after last year’s disputed election.

Kolesnikova, a 39-year-old former flute player in the country’s philharmonic orchestra, and her lawyer Maxim Znak have been in custody since September.

They both had previously worked for presidential hopeful Viktor Babaryko, who was sentenced to 14 years in prison on fraud charges in July.

Kolesnikova and Znak are accused of undermining national security, conspiring to seize power and creating an extremist group.

State prosecutors have requested that they spend 12 years behind bars, Babaryko’s press service said Tuesday, the maximum sentence for their charges.

“In my practice I have not encountered such a pace of considering a case,” Kolesnikova’s lawyer Vladimir Pylchenko told Babaryko’s team.

The closed-door trial started earlier in August and the court is expected to reach a verdict on Monday, September 6.

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 neighboring Ukraine.

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.

The opposition believe Tikhanovskaya, who has garnered the support of Western leaders, was the real winner in the August vote.

While the West has piled personal and economic sanctions on Lukashenko’s regime, they appear to have had limited effect while Belarus maintains the support of ally and creditor Russia.

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