Jailed Belarus Protest Leader Awarded Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize for Opposing Lukashenko Regime

Jailed Belarus Protest Leader Awarded Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize for Opposing Lukashenko Regime

The 2021 Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize has been awarded to Maria Kalesnikava (Maria Kolesnikova), an outspoken protest and civil society leader who was jailed last month for 11 years by the dictatorial regime of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.

The prize in the name of late Czech anti-communist dissident Vaclav Havel is presented every year for “outstanding” contributions to the protection of human rights by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).

The Council of Europe is an intergovernmental organization of 47 member states unrelated to the European Union but all 27 members of the EU are also among its members.

The 2021 Vaclav Havel Human Rights Award was present in absentia to jailed Kalesnikava at a ceremony in Strasbourg, with her sister Tatyana Khomich accepting on her behalf the award, which includes a EUR 60,000 cash prize.

In August, Kalesnikava was sentenced to a whopping 11 years in prison because of her role in leading last summer’s unprecedented mass street protests against the dictatorship of Alexander Lukashenko.

The protests erupted after the rigged presidential election of August 2020 after which Lukashenko claimed he had won a 6th four-year presidential term, and started a swift and brutal crackdown against the protest movement.

In the crackdown, as one of the leading protest figures, Kalesnikava, who is a former flute player with philharmonic orchestra of Belarus, was kidnapped in September 2020 by agents of the Belarusian KGB.

They wanted her to force her in exile abroad. However, at the Ukrainian border she tore up her passport preventing them from removing her from the country.

This bold act resulted in the regime authorities keeping her in jail for a whole year before she was given a hefty sentence in a closed-door trial last month.

During Monday’s award ceremony in the French city of Strasbourg, the seat of PACE, Tatyana Khomich declared that her sister Maria Kalesnikava is dedicating the Vaclav Havel Award to the people of Belarus.

Kalesnikava thanked PACE for the esteemed prize “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,” Khomich said on behalf of her jailed sister.

“If you do not want Belarus to turn into a gulag, we must support the Belarusian people today and now,” she warned.

“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,” PACE President Rik Daems declared as he was presenting the award.

Apart from Belarusian protest leader Maria Kalesnikava, the two other top nominees for the 2021 Vaclav Havel Human Rights Award were international media freedom NGO Reporters Sans Frontières (“Reporters without Borders”) and Burundi human rights defender Germain Rukuki.

Both of them were awarded diplomas, with Reporters Sans Frontières represented by its Director General Christophe Deloire, and Germain Rukuki, who was unable to attended in person, was represented by his sister Scholastique Rukuki.

Other recipients of the Vaclav Havel Human Rights Award since its launch in 2013 have been Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain Alhathloul (2020), jointly Ilham Tohti and the Youth Initiative for Human Rights (2019), Oyub Titiev (2018), Murat Arslan (2017), Nadia Murad (2016), Ludmilla Alexeeva (2015), Anar Mammadli (2014) and Ales Bialiatski (2013).

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(Photo: Tatyana Khomich holds a photo of her sister Maria Kalesnikava, Belarus protest leader jailed by the regime of Lukashenko, as she accepted the 2021 Vaclav Havel Prize on her sister’s behalf at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Photo: PACE)

Ivan Dikov is a Bulgarian journalist and author. He studied political science / international relations and history at Dartmouth College and later in Sofia, in the Eastern Balkans. He’s served for five years as the editor-in-chief of Bulgaria’s largest English-language media – Novinite.com. As a freelancer, he has collaborated with media from the US, the UK, Germany, and Australia.

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