The ninth Václav Havel Human Rights Prize has been awarded to Belarusian opposition activist Maryia Kalesnikava. The award honours outstanding civil society action in defence of human rights.
The 60,000-euro prize was presented at a special ceremony on the opening day of the autumn plenary session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) in Strasbourg.
Presenting the award, PACE President Rik Daems, who chaired the selection panel, said: “In standing up against a regime which has chosen force and brutality against peaceful and legitimate protest, Ms Kalesnikava showed that she is ready to risk her own safety for a cause greater than herself – she has shown true courage.”
Accepting the award on her behalf, Maryia’s sister Tatsyana Khomich thanked the award committee and said her sister would want to dedicate her win to all those in Belarus fighting for their rights.
“This award is a sign of solidarity of the entire democratic world with the people of Belarus. It is also a sign to us, Belarusians, that the international community supports us, and that we are on the right track,” she stressed.
It is not the first time that a Belarusian national has become a holder of the Václav Havel Prize; in 2013, it was presented to Ales Byalyatski, the founder and head of human rights centre Viasna. Notably, Byalyatski is currently behind bars as well. He was detained in mid July as part of a massive attack of the security services on the human rights community in Belarus.
️On September 6, a Minsk court passed guilty verdict in the case of activist Maryia Kalesnikava and lawyer Maksim Znak, who contributed to Viktar Babaryka’s election campaign and then became the members of the board of the opposition Coordination Council established by opposition politician Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya.
Kalesnikava and Znak were tried for ‘calling for actions aimed at harming the national security’ (Art. 361-3 of the Criminal Code); ‘conspiracy to seize state power in an unconstitutional way’ (Article 357-1); ‘establishing and ruling an extremist group’ (Article 361-1). The trial which kicked off on August 4 was held behind the closed doors. The two defendants denied all the charges.
On that day, Maryia Kalesnikava was sentenced to 11 years of imprisonment in a minimum security penal colony, Maksim Znak – to 10 years in a medium security penal colony.
On 7 September 2020, Maryia Kalesnikava was kidnapped near the National Art Museum in Minsk. Unidentified people drove her away in an unknown direction. As it turned out later, the activist 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. A day later, 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 December 2020, the Prosecutor General’s Office launched criminal proceedings over establishing ‘an extremist group’, being in control of it, financing its activities as well as conspiring against members of the Coordination Council, including Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Pavel Latushka, Volha Kavalkova, Syarhei Dyleuski, and other Belarusian activists.
Belarusian human rights watchdogs recognised Maksim Znak and Maryia Kalesnikava as political prisoners.