MOSCOW — A prominent Belarusian opposition leader is facing up to five years in prison after she was charged with incitement to undermine national security, authorities in the eastern European country said Wednesday.
Maria Kolesnikova called for “actions aimed at undermining Belarusian national security” using the media and the Internet, the country’s Investigative Committee said in a statement.
Kolesnikova, who became one of the faces of the mass protests against President Alexander Lukashenko that began after a disputed presidential election in August, is currently in prison in the country’s capital Minsk.
She was jailed last week after tearing up her own passport last week to thwart an attempt to expel her to Ukraine, two of her associates told a news conference. Belarusian authorities claimed she was arrested as she attempted to flee the country. NBC News could not independently verify the government’s claim or the account of Kolesnikova’s associates.
She faces a maximum sentence of five years imprisonment if convicted of incitement.
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News of the charge came shortly after Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko claimed in a long speech that the U.S. and its allies were fomenting massive demonstrations against his rule since the contested Aug. 9 presidential election. Protesters accuse him of rigging the election in his favor.
Often referred to as “Europe’s last dictator,” Lukashenko has maintained his grasp on power in the former Soviet nation for the last 26 years and met the protests with a violent crackdown.
His claim was echoed Wednesday by Russia’s intelligence chief, Sergei Naryshkin, who accused the U.S. of taking Lukashenko’s main election challenger Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and other opposition activists “under its wing,” in a statement carried by Russian news agencies.
Tsikhanouskaya, a former English teacher, emerged from obscurity several months ago after her husband was prevented from running and thrown in jail. She has since fled to Lithuania for security reasons.
Without providing any evidence, Naryshkin said the U.S. was providing millions of dollars to opposition groups in the country.
“This money was used to form a network of independent bloggers’ and information accounts on social networks, and to prepare activists to hit the streets,” he said.
The U.S. Embassy in Minsk had no immediate comment.
Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a new $1.5 billion loan to Belarus when he hosted Lukashenko on Monday.
The financial lifeline was condemned by the Belarusian opposition, which warned Moscow that it would tarnish future ties between the countries.
Earlier this week, Russian paratroopers also deployed to Belarus for the drills that will run through Sept. 25 near Brest, on the border with Poland.
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