(New York, NY) — A court in Belarus’ capital Minsk this week convicted two opposition activists on politically-motivated charges of conspiracy to usurp state power. Musician Maria Kalesnikava and lawyer Maksim Znak were sentenced to 11 and 10 years in prison, respectively. PEN America today joins the international community’s condemnation of the court’s decision and demands the activists’ immediate release.

Arrested a year ago, the two activists are members of the Belarus Coordination Council, created to facilitate a peaceful transfer of power in the wake of last year’s sham presidential election. Kalesnikava, a close companion of presidential opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, was abducted in Minsk on September 7, 2020 and brought to the Ukrainian border with an order to leave the country; she refused and tore up her passport in defiance. The authorities responded by pressing charges and also arrested Maksim Znak, her close associate and lawyer, on September 9, 2020. The two activists’ trial, which began on August 4, was conducted in a swift and dubious manner, with no public access to hearings or case materials

“The draconian sentences given to Maria Kalesnikava and Maksim Znak demonstrate the Belarusian regime’s fear of peaceful civil opposition. It is particularly striking in contrast to Maria’s bravery and unwillingness to escape persecution by leaving the country. The charges brought against the two political activists have no evidential basis; the court’s decision is an abuse of the national security law, which has become a tool for stifling the opposition movement,” said Polina Sadovskaya, PEN America’s Eurasia program director. “This is a flagrant violation of human rights and fundamental freedoms; unfortunately, the Belarusian regime has already made clear it has no regard for such values. The international community must continue to pressure the regime of Lukashenka and stand by the Belarusians repeatedly subjected to these egregious attacks on their freedoms and rights.”

Their sentences are part of a sweeping crackdown on the opposition movement in Belarus, carried out by Alexander Lukashenka’s administration in response to last year’s peaceful mass protests that followed the disputed presidential election last August. Scores of journalists, human rights activists, and artists have been arrested; independent organizations and media outlets have been targeted with office raids, while PEN Belarus was shut down by the Belarusian Justice Ministry

PEN America follows the current situation in Belarus on the matters of the freedom of expression through its Eurasia program and calls for an immediate halt to the ongoing brazen human rights violations in the country.