On March 4, the US Department of State announced the list of recipients of the 2021 International Women of Courage (IWOC) Award. Belarusian Maryia Kalesnikava, a member of the opposition Coordination Council and activist in might-have-been presidential candidate Viktar Babaryka’s campaign office, is among this year’s laureates.
Ahead of the 2020 presidential election, Belarusian women emerged as a dominant political force and driver of societal change in Belarus ‘due in no small part to Maryia Kalesnikava’, the press service of the Department of State notes. According to them, after the Belarusian authorities jailed or exiled the three most popular male opposition candidates, Maryia and her partners mounted a historic and sustained challenge to the 26-year rule of Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
“Maryia continues to be the face of the opposition inside Belarus, courageously facing imprisonment in the aftermath of the disputed election. Despite her detention, Maryia continues to keep the democratic movement alive inside Belarus and serves as a source of inspiration for all those seeking to win freedom for themselves and their countries,” the statement reads.
Since the inception of the IWOC Award in March 2007 to today, the Department of State has recognised more than 155 awardees from over 75 countries. U.S. diplomatic missions overseas nominate one woman of courage from their respective host countries, and finalists are selected and approved by senior Department officials.
On September 7, Maryia Kalesnikava, who became Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya‘s associate, was kidnapped near the National Art Museum in Minsk. Unidentified people drove her away in an unknown direction. As it turned out later, the politician spent half a day in the Main Directorate for Combating Organised Crime and Corruption; then she was taken to the State Security Committee (KGB), where the chekists demanded she voluntarily depart from Belarus. According to her, several KGB officers voiced threats to take her life.
“They warned that if I did not voluntarily leave the territory of the Republic of Belarus, I would still be withdrawn – ‘alive or ‘in pieces’,” Maryia said.
On September 8, Coordination Council spokesman Anton Radnyankou and secretary Ivan Krautsou who were forced out of Belarus gave a press conference in Kyiv. They told how the KGB failed to push Kalesnikava out the country. In the neutral zone, she destroyed her passport, jumped out of the car and returned to the Belarusian border.
In mid September, Kalesnikava was charged under Art. 361-3 of the Criminal Code (‘calling for actions aimed at harming the national security with the use of mass media and the Internet’). Belarusian human rights defenders put her on the political prisoners’ list that includes 246 names at the moment.
In December, the Prosecutor General’s Office launched criminal proceedings over conspiring, establishing ‘an extremist group’, being in control of it, financing its activities against members of the Coordination Council, including Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Maryia Kalesnikava, Maksim Znak, Pavel Latushka, Volha Kavalkova, Syarhei Dyleuski, and other Belarusian activists.