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US Condemns Prison Sentences for Belarusian Opposition Leaders 

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FILE - In this photo taken on Aug. 04, 2021, Maria Kolesnikova smiles inside the defendants' cage at the opening of her trial in Minsk.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned the sentencing Monday of two Belarusians who organized protests against longtime president Alexander Lukashenko.

Maria Kolesnikova and Maxim Znak, top members of the opposition Coordination Council, were charged with extremism and trying to seize power illegally Sunday. Both have denied any wrongdoing.

“We call for their immediate, unconditional release and for that of all other political prisoners held by the Lukashenko regime,” Blinken wrote on Twitter, calling the arrests “unjust.”

Kolesnikova, who has been in custody since September, was sentenced to 11 years in prison, and Znak was sentenced to 10.

FILE - Maxim Znak, attends a court hearing in Minsk, Belarus, Aug. 4, 2021.
FILE - Maxim Znak, attends a court hearing in Minsk, Belarus, Aug. 4, 2021.

Both stood trial behind closed doors, with their families only allowed to be present at Monday’s sentencing.

Last September, Kolesnikova accused Belarusian forces of trying to kill her when she resisted expulsion as authorities tore up her passport, put a bag over her head and drove her to the border with Ukraine before she fought her removal from Belarus and was jailed.

Around the same time, Znak said unidentified masked men abducted him from his office.

Thousands of people protested regularly for months following the August 9 election in which Lukashenko was declared the winner. Opposition parties, the United States and the European Union allege the election was rigged.

Lukashenko’s opponent, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, has since left the country.

FILE - US President Joe Biden meets with Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya at the White House in Washington, July 28, 2021. (Twitter @POTUS)
FILE - US President Joe Biden meets with Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya at the White House in Washington, July 28, 2021. (Twitter @POTUS)

Lukashenko has responded to U.S. sanctions on the country over arbitrary detentions of protesters by rejecting the U.S. ambassador to Belarus and demanding the U.S. reduce its embassy staff in Minsk.

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