The family of imprisoned Belarusian opposition figure hasn't heard from her for over 400 days

Relatives of imprisoned Belarusian opposition figure Maria Kolesnikova say it's been 434 days since they heard from her

Yuras Karmanau
Wednesday 24 April 2024 20:59 BST
Belarus Crackdown
Belarus Crackdown (BelTA)

It's been 434 days since the family of imprisoned Belarusian opposition figure Maria Kolesnikova heard from her, her relatives said Wednesday, on the activist's 42nd birthday.

Kolesnikova, who is serving 11 years in prison for helping organize anti-government protests in Belarus in 2020, and other imprisoned opposition figures have been held incommunicado for months on end, raising fears for their well-being.

“It's the fourth birthday that Maria spends behind bars, and recently we received information that her health is deteriorating and we don't know if she's being treated at all,” her sister Tatsiana Khomich told Belarusian media. Khomich added that the last letter the family received from Kolesnikova came in February 2023, and bits and pieces of news about her trickle through other inmates.

Belarus was rocked by mass protests after an election in 2020 that gave authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko his sixth term in office — a vote that was denounced by the West and the opposition as fraudulent. Authorities responded by arresting more than 35,000 people and brutally beating thousands of them. Many top opposition figures were arrested and given long prison terms, while others fled abroad.

With her short-cropped hair and vibrant smile, Kolesnikova was famous for appearing at demonstrations and forming a heart with her hands.

The activist has been behind bars since September 2020. She was placed in custody after tearing up her passport at the border when authorities tried to expel her.

In 2022, Kolesnikova underwent abdominal surgery but was quickly transported back to prison. Her father was allowed to visit her then. Earlier this week, Belarus' most prominent human rights group, Viasna, listed Kolesnikova among 93 political prisoners who have severe medical problems and could be close to death.

Viasna has also reported that Kolesnikova has faced pressure and harassment from other inmates, who acted on the instructions of prison officials.

Since March 2023, the activist has been held in complete isolation, Khomich said, and "information about her appears only if someone is placed in a cell next to her.”

Viasna has counted 1,401 political prisoners in Belarus. Among them is the group's founder Ales Bialiatski, who won the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize.

Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who was forced into exile in Lithuania, called for solidarity with Kolesnikova on her birthday on Wednesday. "If the regime is ‘not at war against women’, then how come it is the fourth year already that Masha spends this day behind bars?” Tsikhanouskaya said on social platform X.

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