Belarusian opposition leader Maria Kolesnikova has been charged with plotting a coup and setting up an extremist group that could see her serve decades in prison, it was reported on February 12.
One of the trio of women that campaigned against Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko in the disputed August 9 presidential elections that included Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and Veronika Tsepkalo, Kolesnikova was the only one of the three to remain in the country after mass protests broke out.
Authorities abducted her and tried to forcibly expel her from the country in September, but failed after she ripped up her passport on the Ukrainian border, making it impossible for her to leave the country. After disappearing again she eventually resurfaced in a Minsk jail where she has been held on remand awaiting charges.
Kolesnikova has now been charged, according to the headquarters of jailed former presidential hopeful Viktor Babariko, where Kolesnikova previously worked as a political adviser and campaign manager.
The Babariko headquarters issued a statement on February 12 saying that Kolesnikova and fellow opposition activist, lawyer Maksim Znak, have been charged with “conspiracy to seize state power in an unconstitutional manner.” Both are also facing charges of “establishing and leading an extremist organisation.” The pair had previously been charged with publicly encouraging people to participate in unauthorised mass events that, prosecutors say, jeopardised national security.
“We and the defence of Maria and Maxim are sure: this is an exclusively political persecution. The accusations have no legal basis,” the Babariko centre said in a statement.
Both Kolesnikova and Znak are founding members of the Coordinating Council, a collection of activists and prominent Belarusians that was set up to negotiate with the authorities on a transition of power. Lukashenko has dismissed the Coordinating Council out of hand, saying it has no authority to negotiate with the government. Almost all of the members of the council have since fled the country into exile or are in prison.
Tikhanovskaya is now in Lithuania with her children and touring Europe to press EU leaders into supporting the Belarusian people’s campaign to oust Lukashenko from office, and is working with EU leaders to sanction her native country. Tsepkalo fled to Moscow shortly after the protests broke out but is now in Latvia with her family. Kolesnikova, who is unmarried and has no children, was the only one of the three to remain in Belarus and was an active participant in the mass protests that run throughout the summer every weekend.
Lukashenko has repeatedly said he will not stand down or call new elections until a new constitution is in place and is currently holding an All-People’s Congress to discuss the proposed changes.
The opposition has rejected Lukashenko’s bid to change the constitution as illegitimate and simply a ruse to play for time and hang on to power. None of the opposition leaders were invited to attend the congress.