MINSK — Maryya Kalesnikava, a leading opposition activist in Belarus who was sentenced to 11 years in prison in September, has been transferred to a penal colony for women in Homel, a town 300 kilometers southeast of the capital, Minsk.
Rights activists told RFE/RL on January 11 that Kalesnikava has been sent to Correctional Colony No. 4, where she will spend her first two weeks in quarantine as part of the facility’s COVID precautions.
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 of 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 and rejected the charges.
Kalesnikava, 39, was a coordinator of the electoral 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, who is widely believed to have won 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 strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who was officially announced the winner of the election, which demonstrators say was rigged and which the West has refused to recognize.
Kalesnikava was snatched from the streets of Minsk on September 7, 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 recognized Kalesnikava and two other associates who are also being detained as 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.
Last year, Kalesnikava 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 Lukashenka.