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Belarus protests: Trial of opposition figures begins

The trial of two leading Belarusian opposition figures has begun behind closed doors at a court in Minsk.

Protest organiser Maria Kolesnikova and opposition lawyer Maxim Znak were charged last September for incitement to undermine national security.

If found guilty they could each face up to 12 years in prison.

Belarus was gripped by mass protests last year, triggered by an election widely believed to have been rigged in favour of Alexander Lukashenko.

Street demonstrations continued for weeks after the disputed 9 August vote, which the EU and US rejected as neither free nor fair.

The protests were often broken up brutally by police, and thousands were detained.

Mr Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, later cracked down massively on his opponents.

Attending the court behind a glass screen in the capital on Wednesday, Ms Kolesnikova smiled and appeared to dance.

The opposition activist, one of three women who joined forces to challenge Mr Lukashenko in August’s vote, raised her thumbs and made a heart sign with her fingers – a gesture that became a symbol of the protests.

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Ms Kolesnikova and Mr Znak, both aged 39, are members of the National Co-ordination Council, which was set up by exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya following the presidential result.

Prosecutors accuse the council of trying to stage a coup, and Belarusian authorities said both defendants were accused of harming national security and destabilising the country.

They have been charged with “conspiracy or other actions committed with the aim of seizing power”, threatening national security and “the creation of an extremist group”.

Belarus: The basics

  • Where is Belarus? It has its ally Russia to the east and Ukraine to the south. To the north and west lie EU and Nato members Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.
  • Why does it matter? Like Ukraine, this nation of 9.5 million is caught in rivalry between the West and Russia. President Alexander Lukashenko has been nicknamed “Europe’s last dictator” – he has been in power for 27 years.
  • What’s going on there? There is a huge opposition movement demanding new, democratic leadership and economic reform. The opposition movement and Western governments say Mr Lukashenko rigged the 9 August election. Officially he won by a landslide. A huge police crackdown has curbed street protests and sent opposition leaders to prison or into exile.

Ms Kolesnikova last year resisted attempts by the authorities to expel her to Ukraine and was said to have ripped up her passport.

Mr Znak briefly went on hunger strike after being imprisoned in September. He told his lawyer at the time that he felt he had no other way to fight against injustice and arbitrary actions while in detention.

Ms Tikhanovskaya, who stood against Mr Lukashenko last August, said she had won the election. She was forced to flee to Lithuania shortly afterwards.

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