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High-profile Belarusian protest leader Maria Kolesnikova charged with conspiracy to seize state power & setting up extremist group

High-profile Belarusian protest leader Maria Kolesnikova charged with conspiracy to seize state power & setting up extremist group
One of Belarus’ most prominent opposition figures, Maria Kolesnikova, is facing criminal charges for her alleged role in organizing long-running demonstrations against the country’s embattled leader, Alexander Lukashenko.

That's according to the headquarters of jailed former presidential hopeful Viktor Babariko, where Kolesnikova previously worked as a political adviser. On Friday, her supporters issued a statement saying she and another imprisoned activist, Maksim Znak, had been charged with “conspiracy to seize state power in an unconstitutional manner.”

Both are also facing charges of “establishing and leading an extremist organization.” The pair had previously been charged for publicly encouraging people to participate in mass events that, prosecutors say, jeopardized national security.

“We and the defense of Maria and Maxim are sure: this is an exclusively political persecution. The accusations have no legal basis,” Babariko’s allies said.

Kolesnikova was part of a trio of women who led rallies across the country in the run-up to Belarus’ presidential election last summer, and is the only one of them who is still in the country. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who stood as the candidate against Lukashenko, has since fled to neighboring Lithuania and is working with EU leaders to sanction her native country. The third woman, Veronika Tsepkalo, first left for Moscow and later moved with her family to Latvia.

However, Kolesnikova reportedly tore up her passport and threw it from the window of a vehicle to avoid efforts to deport her to Ukraine. Instead, she was arrested and has been jailed since September last year.

Mass protests broke out in Belarus in August, when Lukashenko declared he had been re-elected as president in a poll that the opposition, and many international observers, say was rigged. Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets since then to demand a new vote.

Lukashenko has repeatedly said he will not stand down or call new elections until a new constitution is in place. However, on Thursday, he said that his “main condition for leaving power is peace and order in the country and no protests.” The constitution, he says, will be ready within a year.

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