The closed-door trial of two leading Belarusian opposition figures began in Minsk on Wednesday over charges stemming from their calls for protests against the official results of last year’s widely discredited presidential election.
Maryya Kalesnikava and Maksim Znak are accused of conspiring to seize power, calling for action to damage national security, and encouraging actions harmful to national security via media and the Internet.
Kalesnikava and Znak's relatives, friends, journalists, and supporters were prevented from entering the Minsk regional courthouse where the proceedings are taking place.
Both are members of the opposition Coordination Council that was set up after the disputed election with the stated aim of facilitating a peaceful transfer of power.
They have rejected the charges as politically motivated.
The United States has called the charges "manufactured."
Russia's Sputnik news agency posted a short video from the courtroom before the trial started in which Kalesnikava is seen dancing in the glass cage and displaying a "heart" sign with her hands.
A day earlier, a candidate to succeed German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Annalena Baerbock, demanded via Instagram that the trial be open to the public and independent observers "because, according to all that we know, a fair trial based on the rule of law is not going to be the case."
Kalesnikava was arrested on September 7 in downtown Minsk by masked men and taken to the Ukrainian border the next day, along with two associates. Ordered to cross the border, Kalesnikava refused, tearing up her passport instead. She was then taken back to Minsk and jailed.
Znak, who was also arrested in September, was previously charged with public calls for actions aimed at harming the country's security, sovereignty, territorial integrity, national security, and defense.
Mass demonstrations engulfed the country after Alexander Lukashenko claimed victory and a sixth consecutive term in an August 2020 election.
The opposition said its candidate, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who ran for president after her husband was jailed while trying to mount a candidacy of his own, won the vote.
Tsikhanouskaya left the country for Lithuania shortly after the election due to security concerns.
Other opposition leaders have been forced from Belarus or jailed, and thousands of Belarusians, including dozens of journalists covering the protests, have been detained and hundreds beaten in detention and on the streets.
Several protesters have been killed in the violence, and some rights organizations say there is credible evidence of torture being used by security officials against some detainees.
Lukashenka has denied any wrongdoing in the vote and issued promises of reform down the road in what the opposition has called stalling tactics. But he has refused to negotiate directly with the opposition over stepping down and holding new elections.
The European Union, United States, Canada, and other countries have refused to recognize Lukashenko as the legitimate leader of Belarus and have slapped him and senior Belarusian officials with sanctions in response to the “falsification” of the vote and postelection crackdown.