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How did Belarus' Maria Kolesnikova end up in hospital?

Elena Doronina
December 1, 2022

One of Belarus' most high-profile political prisoners is in hospital. What happened to Maria Kolesnikova while she was in detention — and what have her relatives and fellow campaigners been told?

Maria Kolesnikova, with very short hair and her trademark bright red lipstick, makes a heart shape with her hands behind bars in a courtroom.
Kolesnikova was sentenced to 11 years in prison on charges related to her role in the 2020 protest movementImage: Viktor Tolochko/SNA/imago images

The Belarusian opposition activist Maria Kolesnikova is out of intensive care, it was announced on Thursday. German SPD foreign policy expert Nils Schmid told the Minsk Forum in Berlin that she had been moved to a normal hospital ward. The office of the former Belarusian presidential candidate Viktor Babariko, who worked with Kolesnikova, confirmed this information.

Schmid said the German Embassy in Belarus was paying close attention to Kolesnikova's hospital stay, and that Germany was ready to provide any form of assistance if required.

It only emerged on November 29 that the 40-year old was in intensive care. She had been taken straight to hospital by ambulance the previous day, from a prison in the Belarusian city of Gomel.

"The doctors say Maria was brought in in a serious condition. It's not clear when she became ill. Her lawyer hasn't been allowed to see her since November 17," Kolesnikova's sister, Tatsiana Khomich, told DW.

A huddle of green-helmeted security forces next to rolls of barbed wire; out of focus in the background, a big crowd bearing red and white Belarusian flags
Mass protests in Belarus before and after the 2020 presidential election were brutally suppressed by the authoritiesImage: Vasily Fedosenko/REUTERS

Kolesnikova is one of the three women who, in the summer of 2020, led the protest movement against longtime Belarusian ruler Alexander Lukashenko after he rigged the presidential election in his favor.

The opposition demonstrations were brutally suppressed by the Belarusian regime, prompting Kolesnikova's fellow activists Veronika Tsepkalo and Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya to leave the country. But Kolesnikova stayed.

Lukashenko had her abducted and driven to the Ukrainian border in an attempt to throw her out of the country. But Kolesnikova ripped up her passport at the border to prevent her forced deportation, and was subsequently detained in Belarus. In 2021, a court sentenced her to 11 years in prison.

Prison visit denied

Kolesnikova's lawyer last attempted to visit her in prison on November 29, but was denied permission. He wasn't told that his client was not even in her cell. "Shortly afterward, I received an unofficial tipoff saying Maria was in a hospital in Gomel. All we were told was that she was undergoing surgery," said her sister.

It remains unclear why exactly Kolesnikova is in the hospital. The leaked information only made clear that she had been operated on the day she was admitted. Neither her lawyer nor her father have been allowed to visit her in hospital. However, her father did manage to speak to the doctors who are treating her.

Headshot of Tatsiana Khomich: dark hair, dark eyes, grey jacket, serious expression
Tatsiana Khomich is campaigning for the release of her sister, Maria KolesnikovaImage: DW

"The whole conversation took place in the presence of Interior Ministry employees," Khomich told DW. "The doctors said that the operation went according to plan and was successful, but Maria's condition was still serious. However, they said she was conscious, and getting the treatment and medication she needed."

Kolesnikova's father was not told what was wrong with her. It was claimed that his daughter would need to give written permission in order for the relevant data to be released.

"We have no confirmed information as to why the operation was necessary. I've heard from several sources that Maria supposedly had a perforated ulcer," said Khomich, but she added that her sister had not reported any health problems of this nature.

What happened in solitary confinement?

On November 22, it was made known that Kolesnikova would have to spend 10 days in solitary confinement in a virtually bare cell. Khomich described the regime's harsh treatment of members of the opposition:

"Political prisoners are currently being put under extreme pressure. They don't even have a toothbrush, no bed linen. There's no bed, only a board that's fixed to the wall in the daytime. The prisoners are effectively made to stand all day. They're not given any books, and they're not allowed phone calls, either. Maria's lawyer was told she hadn't requested a visit from him, but she doesn't have paper or a pen with which to make such a request."

Kolesnikova's lawyer has made complaints to the public prosecutor's office and the prison authority, expressing concern about his client's health, but he has not received a response.

How much is known about Maria Kolesnikova's condition?

Kolesnikova's relatives are now trying to find out what happened to her, and what her condition was when she was in custody. "We want official information from the doctors, although we realize that they are now under tremendous pressure. The important thing is of course that they pay as much attention to her as possible," said Khomich.

Franak Viacorka is a confidant of the Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who currently lives in exile in Lithuania. "We demand that Maria's relatives, lawyers and foreign diplomats are granted access to her, in order to satisfy themselves that she is alive and receiving the necessary treatment," he said.

Viacorka added that eyewitnesses had testified to the torture of political prisoners in Belarus. According to their reports, prisoners were made to sit in freezing cold rooms. "They were also beaten. Belarusian prisons are not governed by the law, but by the completely arbitrary abuse of power," he explained.

Support from comrades-in-arms

Many newspapers carried the news about Kolesnikova on the front page. It was also the top story on numerous websites. The European Parliament, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the US State Department and the German Foreign Office all reacted to the reports of Kolesnikova's ill health.

Tsepkalo, Tsikhanouskaya and Kolesnikova, all dressed in red and white, smile and hold hands, arms in the air
Veronika Tsepkalo (left), Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya (center) and Kolesnikova led the protest movement against Lukashenko in 2020Image: Sergei Grits/AP/picture alliance

Her comrades-in-arms Tsikhanouskaya and Tsepkalo have also commented. "Terrible news. Our dear Masha, we all hope that you will be all right!" Tsikhanouskaya wrote. She called on Belarusians to pass on information from the hospital in Gomel, to prevent Lukashenko's regime from hushing up the case.

"Dear Maria, there are no words to describe my feelings on hearing the news that you are in the ICU. What has to happen to someone in solitary confinement for them to go straight from there to intensive care?" Tsepkalo posted on Facebook. She called on the international community to help "isolate Lukashenko from the Belarusian people."

"What else has to happen in Belarus for us to get help? Masha, I really hope you will get better soon and that everything will be fine. I am with you," Tsepkalo wrote.

This article was originally written in Russian.