On the 4th of August, following a disputed presidential election, leading members of the Belarusian opposition were placed on trial after a government-enforced abolition of dissent was ordained throughout the country. The trial began at a court in Minsk where key opposition figures, Maria Kolesnikova, organizer of many protests, and opposition lawyer Maxim Znak were charged with incitement to undermine national security. Maria Kolesnikova was arrested last year for refusing to be forcibly moved over the Ukraine border by authorities. Prosecutors have accused both individuals of attempting to stage a coup, harming national security and destabilizing the country.
Before the trial began, Kolesnikova was offered release by authorities if she asked for a pardon and gave an interview to state media expressing remorse. She rejected the offer and restated her innocence instead. If they are found guilty, they could each face a sentence of 12 years in prison. Just as Kolesnikova and Znak’s trial began, Olympic sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya fled from Tokyo to Europe seeking asylum after resisting an attempt by her team’s officials to forcibly return her to Belarus.
Last year, large-scale protests erupted across Belarus in response to an election that was widely believed to have been rigged in favor of Alexander Lukashenko, a man who has been the first and only president of Belarus since its establishment in 1994. Demonstrations took place for weeks after the internationally disputed vote on the 9th of August, which both the European Union and the United States rejected the legitimacy of. As the trial continues, Belarus’ President Alexander Lukashenko has hinted that he may be prepared to leave his position of power after months of protests and dispute.
The president stated that he supported changing the constitution to weaken the role of any future president that may take his place. This development likely came as a result of Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov advising Lukashenko to reform the Belarus government’s statutes as Russia has been Lukashenko’s key supporter. Belarusian opposition leaders have dismissed Lukashenko’s comments as a mere stalling tactic used in an attempt to sustain his presidency through the protests; the opposition leaders have been campaigning for the president to resign immediately. In response, many leading opposition leaders have been detained, while others have been forced into exile in neighbouring countries. During the mass street protests, video and eye-witness reports document police brutality and excessive force. The use of excessive force carries on into the political sphere as many professors, leaders of organizations, and activists have been found dead when fleeing prosecution or after raids on residences.
During these protests, Ukraine has provided assistance in the investigation of opposition leaders’ deaths and protecting Belarusians who have sought refuge in their country. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky’s commitment to supporting opposition forces and those fleeing Lukashenko’s regime provides an example of how the rest of the world should be pushing for Lukashenko’s resignation and supporting Belarusian refugees.