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Kolesnikova helped led last summer’s rallies against Lukashenko

Maria Kolesnikova, the last remaining protest leader still in Belarus, danced and smiled as she went on trial on Wednesday accused of violating national security when she challenged President Alexander Lukashenko’s rule last year.

Kolesnikova has been in custody since September, after resisting a forced deportation by the KGB security service by ripping up her passport.

The start of the high-profile trial comes as critics accuse the Belarusian regime of killing an activist in neighbouring Ukraine and trying to forcibly bring an Olympic athlete home from Tokyo.

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Together with opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and another campaign partner, Veronika Tsepkalo, Kolesnikova led last summer’s rallies against Lukashenko.

The pair are accused of undermining national security, conspiring to seize power and creating an extremist group.

– ‘Remains her bright self’ –

She also made a heart-shaped symbol with her hands, which she often did at protest rallies.

It posted a video of Kolesnikova’s father, who has not seen his daughter since her arrest but corresponds with her by post, thanking the diplomats.

“I am motivated by the fact that she remains her bright self even in these conditions.”

Tikhanovskaya, who stood for president in place of her jailed husband, was forced out of the country and granted refuge in EU member Lithuania. Tsepkalo also left Belarus.

When Kolesnikova was arrested last September, members of the KGB put a sack over her head, pushed her into a minibus and drove her to the Ukraine border, she said.

In a written interview with Russian TV channel Dozhd published Wednesday, she said she did not regret the move, saying it showed “that the rumours about the all-powerful KGB are completely exaggerated.”

Neighbouring Ukraine said it would provide extra protection to the growing number of Belarusian exiles in the country after an activist was found hanged in a Kiev park this week.

They were both part of a seven-member Coordination Council, set up in response to the disputed August election to oversee the peaceful transition of power.

She has urged the West to toughen sanctions against Lukashenko’s regime, and met with US President Joe Biden last week and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday.

Belarusian activist Vitaly Shishov was found hanged in a park in the Ukrainian capital Kiev on Tuesday, with supporters accusing the regime of killing him.

On Wednesday, she flew out of Japan en route to Poland, which has granted her a humanitarian visa.

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