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She was the driving force behind a female triumvirate that pissed off Alexander Lukashenko in last year’s election – going through decades of dictatorship with a nod she would draw to her supporters at rallies.

On Tuesday, Lukashenko gave Maria Kolesnikova a sign of her own by ordering severe sentences of 12 years in prison for her and her opposition colleague Maxim Znak. It seems unlikely that the court will do anything other than compel the claims.

The trial, which is being held behind closed doors in Minsk, is proceeding with unprecedented haste. A conviction is expected just four weeks after the start of the process. No one can say anything about the charges; they are classified. No one can say anything about the evidence – which is classified.

The independent understands that Ms Kolesnikova and Mr Znak made the final speeches in court on Tuesday. But there is no public record as to what they said – that too is classified.

Ms Kolesnikova was the only one of the triumvirate to remain in Belarus after the forced departure of opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya in August 2020.

The regime did its best to send the former musician in the same way, arresting her during a raid in September and then attempting to force her out. But Ms Kolesnikova confused her masked assailants by obviously tearing up her passport at the Ukrainian-Belarusian border.

This courageous move gave Ms Kolesnkikova heroic status within the Belarusian opposition and focused the regime’s minds against her.

It also caused his loved ones to worry about what might happen. Talk to The independent, his father, Alexander Kolesnikov, remembers strong conflicting emotions of “rapture” and “anxiety” following the news of his unsuccessful exfiltration.

The two had discussed various scenarios before, he said. He knew his daughter was independent of mind – she had always “done her own thing” – and he knew that she was determined to stay in Belarus. But no one, let alone him, expected such a drastic decision.

“Maria has always been governed by a sense of responsibility towards the people around her,” he said. “I understood it was not a spontaneous decision, but it was still a shock.”

Although Mr Kolesnikov was not allowed to attend the trial, authorities granted him the shortest possible exchange with his daughter last week. It was the first time the two had seen each other in nearly a year. Separated by several meters and a glass cage, Maria greeted him with her signature heart sign – he responded in the same way.

The meeting helped cushion the blow of Tuesday’s surprisingly harsh sentencing demand, Kolesnikov said.

“I could see how strong in mind, body and soul she was,” he said. “She might have been in a cage that day, but she was freer than anyone in the room.”

On Monday, human rights observer Viasna reported updated figures of 653 political prisoners in Lukashenko’s prisons.

The sentencing of Ms Kolesnikova and Mr Znak, which may or may not be public, is expected next Monday at noon.

The Independent Gt

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