Maria Kalesnikava is a prominent opposition leader from Belarus. A musician and symbol of peaceful protests in 2020, she was detained after the August 2020 rigged elections and sentenced to eleven years in prison. June 4 marked one thousand days in detention. American Purpose discussed her case with Inna Kavalionak, who leads Politzek, an organization working for the release of political prisoners in Belarus. There are an estimated 1,513 political prisoners in Belarus. Maria’s sister Tatsiana Khomich and her lawyer have been denied contact with her since February.
American Purpose: What were the circumstances of Maria’s arrest?
Inna Kavalionak: Maria was running the headquarters of presidential candidate Viktar Babaryka, a current political prisoner, who himself was detained before the 2020 elections. Maria was charged with treason. In fact, she participated in public protests in Belarus, called by the regime “mass riots.” Civil society activists and independent media are labeled “extremists.”
AP: Say a word about Maria.
IK: She is a person on a mission. She tore up her passport and went back to Belarusian customs when the authorities kidnapped her on the street on September 7, 2020, in Minsk and tried to force her into Ukraine. She’s an inspirational figure for Belarusians. She’s now the recipient of a number of international awards for her work fighting for democracy and human rights. Before 2020, she was a successful musician and art manager.
AP: What do we know about her current condition?
IK: She’s been experiencing pressure since the start of her detention. Very limited correspondence, solitary confinement. She underwent surgery [for an ulcer] in November 2022 due to negligence of the prison administration and again being placed in a punishment cell. She’s lost weight. At the moment she is in complete isolation—we haven’t heard from her for almost four months. No lawyers or family visits, no correspondence. Together with the worst health conditions it is highly concerning. These are obviously deliberate actions towards her, because there is no legal basis for such.
AP: Is pressure from the authorities focused on Maria?
IK: Maria is definitely experiencing special treatment. Nevertheless on a smaller scale it applies to all the political prisoners. They’ve been mistreated in custody, deprived of the meetings with relatives and lawyers, wearing yellow labels on their clothes as a sign of people “likely to conduct extremist actions.” They are being regularly placed in the punishment cells for random “violations” (such as unzipped shirts). Together with the limitations of the food parcels and poor medical care it creates constant a threat to their physical and mental health and ultimately to their lives.
AP: Why is her story important?
IK: Since August 2020 there was no week when the number of political prisoners hasn’t grown. There are over 1,500 of them currently. It may seem that nothing is happening in Belarus in 2023, but the constant and high level of repression creates the atmosphere of total fear and paralysis in society. It is especially concerning having such a neighbor as Russia.
And now Maria’s case is representative of this worst tendency of not only isolating in detention those who disagree, but physically putting them in danger and making Belarusians and people abroad forget about them (see the example of Babaryka, who has also been hospitalized and we do not know anything about his condition for two months soon. Same with the other prominent activists and leaders—three, four months of complete silence). They want to make human rights violations of such scale acceptable. Neither Maria nor we agree with this and our job is not to allow this to happen.
Inna Kavalionak leads Politzek.me, an activist-run platform that channels online and offline support for political prisoners in Belarus.
Image: File photo of Maria Kalesnikava (RFE/RL)
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