(Vilnius, June 12, 2023) – Belarusian authorities should immediately end the ill-treatment of Maria Kalesnikava and all the other political prisoners, 24 international and Belarusian rights groups said today. Kalesnikava is being held in solitary confinement and is not receiving adequate medical care despite serious health problems. She is being denied essential foods and medicines.
Kalesnikava has had no contact with her family or lawyer for almost four months. Credible reports that she has been ill-treated by penal colony management and that her health has deteriorated are a source of deep concern.
Kalesnikava is a prominent opposition figure, musician, and symbol of the peaceful protest movement for human rights in Belarus. She has been held behind bars since September 2020, after she resisted an attempt by the authorities to forcefully expel her from the country in retaliation for her political activism and her membership in the opposition’s Coordination Council for the Transfer of Power.
On September 6, 2021, she was sentenced to 11 years in prison on bogus charges of “extremism,” “trying to seize power,” and “calls for actions causing harm to the national security.” She is serving her sentence in female penal colony N4 in Homiel.
On the night of November 28, 2022, Kalesnikava was admitted to the intensive care unit of Homiel’s emergency hospital where she underwent surgery for a perforated ulcer. Immediately prior to being admitted to the hospital, Kalesnikava had spent over 10 days in a freezing punishment isolation cell despite having serious health concerns. Her cell was so cold that she could not sleep at all, so she walked constantly to keep warm.
Although Kalesnikava fainted repeatedly and suffered from high blood pressure and nausea while in solitary confinement, the authorities refused to transfer her to the hospital until her health significantly deteriorated.
The penal colony’s administration did not inform Kalesnikava’s lawyer or family that she had been hospitalized and undergone surgery, even though she had repeatedly asked the hospital staff to get in touch with her family.
Kalesnikava spent approximately a week at the Homiel emergency hospital before being transferred to the penal colony’s medical facility. The details about Kalesnikava’s condition and her account of ill-treatment in the punishment cell only became known on December 5, when her father was allowed to visit her.
On January 10, the penal colony’s administration forced Kalesnikava to resume work at the colony’s clothing factory. Her family expressed concern that she was still too weak from the surgery to start working again.
Since mid-February, Kalesnikava has been denied any communication with her family, including calls, letters, or visits. Her lawyer has had no access to Kalesnikava since February 7, despite repeated attempts to contact her.
In late March, Viasna, a prominent human rights organization, reported that Kalesnikava had been placed in a punishment cell (“PKT”) over a supposed violation of penitentiary regulations.
From October 2020 to December 2022, Belarusian authorities disbarred three lawyers in retaliation for representing Kalesnikova: Aliaksandr Pylchenka, Liudmila Kazak, and Vladimir Pylchenko. Politically motivated disbarment of political prisoners’ lawyers is a common repressive practice in Belarus.
In May, human rights organizations learned through private channels that Kalesnikava's health had significantly deteriorated in prison and that she had not recovered from the surgery. According to credible reports, she was unable to do mandatory work in prison and has lost consciousness on several occasions.
Concerned about her deteriorating health, Kalesnikava’s family consulted with a doctor regarding her post-operative care needs. Although the doctor was not able to examine Kalesnikava in person, he advised that she might require medical supervision and a special diet for several more months following the surgery to avoid a relapse with potentially far worse health consequences.
Isolation and ill-treatment of political prisoners is a widespread repressive tactic in Belarus. In recent months, the authorities have also prevented other prominent individuals imprisoned for political reasons – including Maksim Znak, Siarhei Tsikhanouski, Viktar Babaryka, Mikola Statkevich, and Ihar Losik – from communicating with their lawyers and family members.
Belarusian authorities should provide information about Kalesnikava’s health condition, urgently grant her access to doctors of her choice, restore her communication with her family, and reinstate her lawyer’s access, the groups said. Belarusian authorities should end their politically motivated prosecutions and release all those imprisoned solely for exercising their fundamental freedoms.
Barys Zvozskau Belarusian Human Rights House
Belarusian Association of Journalists
Belarusian Helsinki Committee
Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights
Human Rights Center “Viasna”
Human Rights Watch
International Federation for Human Rights
International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR)
Legal Initiative Belarus
Libereco – Partnership for Human Rights
Netherlands Helsinki Committee
Norwegian Helsinki Committee
Office for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
People in Need
World Organisation against Torture