The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion In Belarus, a champion of democracy suffers solitary confinement

Maria Kolesnikova gestures on the way to the Belarusian Investigative Committee in Minsk, Belarus, on Aug. 27, 2020. (Dmitri Lovetsky/AP)

In the darkness that political prisoners endure in Belarus, the “punishment cell,” or solitary confinement, is particularly miserable. Those who have suffered it recall constant cold. They are allowed only to take a toothbrush, thin towel and toilet paper; are forced to sleep on a wooden bunk without pillow or blanket; are denied reading material; have no contact with others, including a lawyer. Maria Kolesnikova, who fought for democracy in Belarus, has now been confined to one such hellhole.

Ms. Kolesnikova is known for her irrepressible, sunny mood. She is a professional musician — a flutist — who has studied in Belarus and Germany. Behind bars in a Belarus courtroom, she made a heart sign with her handcuffed hands and danced. She wrote to her father after 10 months in prison, “I’m well, healthy and cheerful!” We can only imagine how she copes in utter isolation at Penal Colony No. 4 in Gomel, in southeastern Belarus.

Relatives say they do not know how long she has been in the punishment cell, or for what; the prison staff refused to allow a lawyer to meet her. They add that she was disciplined recently for “being in the wrong place during working hours,” and for “impolite” behavior. These charges are just as ludicrous as the ones for which Ms. Kolesnikova was sentenced in September 2021 to 11 years in prison: “causing harm to the national security,” “conspiracy to seize power in an unconstitutional way,” and “creation of an extremist formation, or participation in it.”

What Ms. Kolesnikova actually did was champion the cause of democracy. She became campaign manager to presidential candidate Viktor Babariko, a longtime Minsk banker who gathered signatures to run for president in 2020 against dictator Alexander Lukashenko and was detained for it. Ms. Kolesnikova then joined Svetlana Tikhanovskaya in a presidential bid that drew enormous crowds and enthusiasm for a free Belarus. They were triumphant, only to see the election stolen by Mr. Lukashenko, who declared himself the winner. Ms. Tikhanovskaya was forced out of the country. When thugs tried to force Ms. Kolesnikova over the border, she resisted by tearing up her passport and jumping out of their car. She was later arrested.

Mr. Lukashenko clearly believes that imprisoning his critics will silence them. Mr. Babariko is still behind bars; so is Ms. Tikhanovskaya’s husband, Sergei. There are 1,450 political prisoners in Belarus, according to the human rights group Viasna, which describes them as: “Bloggers, business executives, presidential campaign members and peaceful protesters … held in prisons only because they were not afraid to exercise their rights — the right to participate in peaceful assemblies, to express their opinion and to be involved in political activities.”

Mr. Lukashenko has been violating fundamental human rights in Belarus for many years. He is also a willing partner with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in trying to destroy Ukraine’s democracy by going to war. It is time for Ms. Kolesnikova and all the political prisoners to be freed. Mr. Lukashenko and his henchmen are the ones who should find themselves in the dock, for the cruel multitude of injustices they inflicted upon the people of Belarus.

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