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Belarus 'isolates prominent political prisoners'

Volha Verasovich
June 7, 2023

Belarusian authorities broke the jailed dissident Maria Kolesnikova's contact with her family in the winter. "Cutting off contact with the outside world is real torture," Tatsiana Khomich, Kolesnikova's sister, told DW.

Tatsiana Khomich holds up a picture of Maria Kolesnikova
Khomich has worked for the release of Maria Kolesnikova and other political prisonersImage: Malte Ossowski/SVEN SIMON/picture alliance

The dissident Maria Kolesnikova was arrested on September 7, 2020, in Belarus. On September 6, 2021, the Minsk oblast court sentenced her to 11 years in prison, along with labor, citing three articles of the Belarusian criminal code. She was accused of extremism and conspiring to seize power, among other charges. On November 28, 2022, Kolesnikova was transferred from Gomel penal colony No. 4 to an intensive care unit in critical condition and underwent surgery. In February, contact between her and her family and supporters was broken.

Tatsiana Khomich, Kolesnikova's sister, is a member of the opposition Coordinating Council and co-founder of the FreeBelarusPrisoners, an association of political prisoners and former political prisoners and their relatives.

DW: When was the last time you spoke to your sister?

Khomich: The last piece of mail was sent from Maria to my father on February 15. It was very short, an ordinary postcard. At the beginning of February, the lawyer visited Maria, but after that we did not hear from her again. Our last phone call was in November 2022. Then she had an operation and was recovering in a prison hospital for a little over a month. After that, I lost contact. Even when she left the hospital and returned to work, there were no more calls.

Your father was able to see your sister in December, after the operation. What did he say about this meeting?

It was a short meeting, literally 10 minutes, during which he could talk to her, touch and hug her. There had been no such meetings since she was jailed — until then, all visitors were separated by a glass screen and visits lasted only an hour. There should be several such visits per year and they should be longer, two or three days in length. My father said he saw she was having a hard time after the surgery. She lost a lot of weight, about 15 kilograms (33 pounds). Prison food is not agreeing with her.

Maria Kolesnikova gives a speech in a rally in support of the main opposition candidates
Maria Kolesnikova pictured when she was still free, speaking at a Minsk rally in July 2020Image: Celestino Arce Lavin/ZUMA Wire/picture alliance

How often did you used to talk to your sister on the phone?

Usually, twice a month at most. As recently as last year, we were able to make video calls — in 2022, we had six of them. Of course, these were happy, albeit brief, moments. But, in August 2022, Maria was told that she would no longer be allowed to make such phone calls in the penal colony. After that, there were a few more video calls with our father, but then all communication was broken off.

What did she write in her last letter?

As always, she told us not to worry about her health. This is typical of Maria: She always tries to cheer us up, despite all the suffering she endures. She also wrote that she is still taking some other medication. She sent greetings to all relatives and friends and said they are all always in her heart.

How much is known about Maria Kolesnikova's condition?

Have people who left the prison in recent months said anything about Maria?

In March, there was news that Maria may be held in a prison cell under extra-strict conditions. Those held there do not work. As a rule, individuals are locked up for several months, sometimes up to half a year. When the person is not working, they have minimal contact, meaning they see practically no one. Every day, they are allowed no more than 30 minutes to exercise, and the amount of money they are allowed to spend in the prison store on extra food is reduced. Even the food portions that such prisoners receive are reduced. And this is very critical for Maria, especially in terms of her health.

She was forced to return to work very quickly, on January 10, just over a month after surgery. She needs a special diet. I talked to the doctors. They said normally, after surgery for a stomach ulcer, you have to take medicine and follow a special diet with very soft food. Maria's food was not adjusted to her medical condition at all. Now she needs food packages, but we can't send her anything because we are not in contact with her. It was recently said that Maria's health has deteriorated, but it is unclear how recent the report is.

What could have caused the ulcer?

As far as I know, Maria did not have stomach problems before. Before this, she had spent 10 days in a solitary cell. The conditions are terrible: It's very cold, and you can't sleep. The body can react to such conditions in every possible way. Maria said that before the operation she was unwell for several days, and that she lost consciousness, but the prison administration did not react to this. They waited until it was a literally a matter of life and death.

Tsikhanouskaya: 'I didn't give up my fight'

The prison administration claims Maria does not request visits.

We hear that other political prisoners — Viktor Babariko, Siarhei Tsikhanouski, Maksim Snak, Ales Bialiatski, Nikolai Statkevich and Ihar Losik — are suffering in a similar way. The most prominent political prisoners are isolated to put them under pressure. Cutting off contact with the outside world is real torture, puts pressure on them, on their relatives. I also think this is an attempt to try to get people to forget about the prisoners and stop talking about them. But that is backfiring, raising even more questions and drawing even more attention to their situation.

What does FreeBelarusPrisoners do?

We meet diplomats from different countries. Since 2020, one of our main demands has been the release of all political prisoners; at the same time, we want to isolate the regime. These two approaches are at odds with each other. The keys to the country's prisons are in the hands of the Belarusian regime. In this situation, everything must be done to free these inmates. If it is impossible to free all of them at once, we should try to free small groups, because some are seriously ill. Years have gone by, and we must not sacrifice their lives and health.

This article was translated from German.

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