Jailed Belarusian opposition figure Maryya Kalesnikava has won the Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize awarded annually by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) to honor “outstanding” civil society action in the defense of human rights amid an ongoing crackdown in Belarus on pro-democracy activists and groups by authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
The prize was presented by PACE President Rik Daems to Maryya’s sister, Tatsyana Khomich, at a special ceremony on September 27, the opening day of the autumn plenary session of the PACE in Strasbourg.
“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,” Daems said.
Accepting the prize on her sister’s behalf, Khomich said: “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.”
Kalesnikava and another opposition figure, Maksim Znak, were sentenced to prison terms of 11 and 10 years respectively on September 6, after being found guilty on charges with conspiracy to seize power, calls for action to damage national security, and calls for actions damaging national security by trying to create an extremist group.
Both pleaded not guilty, rejecting the charges.
Kalesnikava, 39, was a coordinator of the election campaign of an excluded presidential aspirant, former Belgazprombank head Viktar Babaryka.
After Babaryka was arrested weeks before the August 2020 presidential election, Kalesnikava joined forces with another presidential candidate, Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, whom the majority of Belarusians have called the winner in the election.
After joining Tsikhanouskaya’s support group, Kalesnikava became a member of the opposition Coordination Council and turned into a prominent leader of protests demanding the resignation of Lukashenka, who was officially announced the winner of the election demonstrators say was rigged and which the West has refused to acknowledge.
Kalesnikava was snatched from the streets of Minsk in September 2020 by masked men along with two staffers. The three were driven early the next day to the border, where authorities told them to cross into Ukraine.
Security officers reportedly failed to deport Kalesnikava because she ripped her passport into small pieces after they arrived in the no man’s land between Belarus and Ukraine. Her two associates entered Ukraine, but with no valid passport, Kalesnikava remained in the country and was subsequently detained.
A dozen human rights watchdogs based in Belarus have declared Kalesnikava and two other associates political prisoners and have demanded their immediate release from custody.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has called her trial a “politically motivated conviction and shameful sentencing” on “bogus” charges.
Kalesnikava was shortlisted for the Havel award on August 31 along with the Paris-based media-freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders and Burund human rights defender Germain Rukuki.