Belarus Opposition Leader, Serving 11 Years in Prison, Wins Human Rights Award Worth $70K

Belarus opposition leader Maria Kolesnikova was awarded the Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe for her work in the European nation.

Kolesnikova was arrested last year for destroying her passport at the Belarus border to protest her attempted expulsion from the country.

Earlier this month, a court in Minsk sentenced Kolesnikova to 11 years in prison charging her for inspiring mass protests, conspiring to seize power against President Alexander Lukashenko's regime, and calling for actions to damage national security.

The Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize celebrates outstanding civil society action in the defense of human rights. Kolesnikova's sister, Tatsiana Khomich, accepted the award from council president Rik Daems, on her behalf at a ceremony in Strasbourg, France.

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."

For more reporting by the Associated Press, see below.

Kolesnikova wins human rights award
Parliamentary Assembly Rik Daems, left, holds a diploma while Tatiana Khomich holds a poster of jailed Belarus civil rights activist Maria Kalesnikava, who won the Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize awarded at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Jean-Francois Badias/AP Photo

Belarus was rocked by months of protests after Lukashenko was awarded a sixth term after the August 2020 presidential vote that the opposition and the West denounced as a sham. He ordered a huge crackdown that saw more than 35,000 people arrested and thousands beaten by police.

"In standing up against a regime which has chosen force and brutality against peaceful and legitimate protest, Ms. Kolesnikova showed that she is ready to risk her own safety for a cause greater than herself – she has shown true courage," assembly President Rik Daems said as he presented the award.

Kolesnikova, 39, has been a key opposition activist. She appeared at political rallies, fearlessly walking up to lines of riot police and making her signature gesture — a heart formed by her hands.

The former flautist in the Belarus philharmonic orchestra led the campaign of Viktor Babariko, the head of a Russian-owned bank who made a bid to challenge Lukashenko, but he was barred from the race after being jailed on money laundering and tax evasion charges that he dismissed as political.

Kolesnikova then joined forces with former English teacher Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who was running in place of her jailed husband Sergei, an opposition blogger, as the main candidate against Lukashenko, and Veronika Tsepkalo, the wife of another potential top contender who fled the country fearing arrest.

The three appeared together at colorful campaign events that came in stark contrast to Lukashenko's Soviet-style gatherings.

In September 2020, KGB agents drove Kolesnikova to the Belarus-Ukraine border in an attempt to expel her. In the neutral zone between the two countries, she managed to rip up her passport, broke out of the car and walked back into Belarus, where she was immediately arrested.

The Council of Europe has 47 member countries, including Russia but not Belarus, and is the continent's leading human rights body. It is not part of the European Union.