KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Leading members of the Belarusian opposition went on trial Wednesday, part of a multi-pronged crackdown on dissent in the ex-Soviet nation that was rocked by months of protests over a disputed presidential election.

Maria Kolesnikova, a top member of the opposition Coordination Council, has been in custody since her arrest in September. She is accused of conspiring to seize power, creating an extremist organization and calling for actions damaging state security.

The trial of Kolesnikova and lawyer Maxim Znak, another leading member of the Coordination Council who faces the same charges, started Wednesday at the Minsk Regional Court in the Belarusian capital.

Kolesnikova, who helped coordinate opposition protests that erupted after an August 2020 presidential vote, resisted authorities’ attempts to force her to leave the country. When officers of the Belarusian security agency drove her to the border with Ukraine in September to forcibly expel her, she ripped up her passport and walked back into Belarus to face arrest.

“Freedom is worth fighting for. Do not be afraid to be free,” she wrote in last year’s message from prison conveyed by her lawyer. “I do not regret anything and would do the same again.”

Just as Kolesnikova and Znak went on trial, a Belarusian Olympic sprinter flew from Tokyo to Europe after resisting an attempt by her team’s officials to forcibly send her home to Belarus after a dispute over coaching. The 24-year-old runner Krystsina Tsimanouskaya said she could be in danger if she returns to her homeland.

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Belarus was shaken by months of protests fueled by President Alexander Lukashenko’s being awarded a sixth term after the August 2020 presidential vote that the opposition and the West denounced as a sham. He responded to the demonstrations with a massive crackdown that saw more than 35,000 people arrested and thousands beaten by police.

Authorities have ramped up their crackdown on dissent in recent weeks, targeting independent journalists and democracy activists in hundreds of raids.

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