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2021 Václav Havel Prize awarded to Belarusian human rights activist Maria Kalesnikava

Tatsiana Khomich, the sister of Belarusian human rights activist Maria Kalesnikava, receiving the 2021 Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize on her behalf at a ceremony in Strasbourg, 27th September 2021.

The ninth Václav Havel Human Rights Prize – which honours outstanding civil society action in defence of human rights – has been awarded to Belarusian human rights 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 three female symbols of the Belarusian opposition and the struggle of the people of Belarus for civil and political liberties and fundamental rights.

She was abducted in Minsk in September 2020 and made headlines when she tore up her passport at the border to prevent her forced removal and exile from Belarus. She was subsequently detained, and in September 2021 was sentenced to 11 years in prison for her 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.”

He added: “Indeed, courageous is the word that I believe best describes all three of our shortlisted candidates. Just like Mr Havel, all have shown a willingness to sacrifice their own safety, their own well-being, and ultimately their own freedom, for a greater cause – the protection of human rights for all. This may be a prize, but it comes at a heavy price.”

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. Reporters Sans Frontières was represented by its Director General Christophe Deloire. For security reasons, Mr Rukuki was unable to be in Strasbourg in person, but he was represented by his sister Scholastique Rukuki, who received the diploma on his behalf.

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.

Since its creation, the Prize has been awarded in turn to Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain Alhathloul (2020), jointly to Ilham Tohti and the Youth Initiative for Human Rights (2019), Oyub Titiev (2018), Murat Arslan (2017), Nadia Murad (2016), Ludmilla Alexeeva (2015), Anar Mammadli (2014) and Ales Bialiatski (2013).