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Council of Europe awards Václav Havel Human Rights Prize 2021 to Belarusian opposition leader Maria Kalesnikava

The ninth Václav Havel Human Rights Prize – which honours extraordinary civil society action in defence of human rights – has been awarded to Belarusian opposition leader and activist Maria Kalesnikava.

The 60,000-euro prize was presented at a special ceremony on the opening day of the autumn plenary session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) in Strasbourg.

Maria Kalesnikava is one of the opposition leaders in Belarus and a member of the Co-ordination Council. She was the head of the campaign headquarters of former presidential nominee Viktar Babaryka, and has become one of the personalities of the Belarusian opposition and symbol of the struggle of the people of Belarus for civil and political liberties and fundamental rights.

She was abducted in Minsk in September 2020. She was subsequently detained, and in September 2021 was sentenced to 11 years in prison for her political activity.

Accepting the award on her behalf, Maria’s sister Tatsiana Khomich thanked the award committee and said her sister would want to dedicate her win to all those in Belarus fighting for their rights: “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.”

Presenting the award, PACE President Rik Daems, who chaired the selection panel, said: “In standing up against a regime which has chosen force and brutality against peaceful and legitimate protest, Ms Kalesnikava showed that she is ready to risk her own safety for a cause greater than herself – she has shown true courage.”

The two other shortlisted nominees were Reporters Sans Frontières, the leading international NGO working to defend media freedom, and Burundian human rights defender Germain Rukuki, both of whom were awarded diplomas.

The Václav Havel Human Rights Prize is awarded each year by PACE, in partnership with the Václav Havel Library and the Charta 77 Foundation, “to honour outstanding civil society action in defence of human rights in Europe and beyond”. It consists of a sum of 60,000 euros, a trophy and a diploma. The Czech Republic contributes financially to the Prize.