Tatsiana Khomich, sister of Maria Kalesnikava: “Maria tore up her passport, she refused to be expelled from Belarus“

, by Jules Bigot

Tatsiana Khomich, sister of Maria Kalesnikava: “Maria tore up her passport, she refused to be expelled from Belarus“
Tatsiana Khomich (left) and her sister Maria Kalesnikava (right) in 2018. Credits: Tatsiana Khomich

TNF supports JEF-Europe’s campaign #DemocracyUnderPressure that this year will take place from the 18th to the 25th of March.

Tatsiana Khomich is the sister of Maria Kalesnikava, Belarusian political leader who took part in the 2020 presidential campaign and the subsequent demonstrations that shook the country. On September 7th 2020 she was kidnapped in the center of Minsk and taken to the Ukrainian border where she tore up her passport to avoid being expelled. She was immediately arrested and has been imprisoned for 2 years and 6 months.

As part of JEF Europe’s campaign “Democracy Under Pressure“, which aims to raise awareness about the situation in Belarus and to support the opposition to Lukasehnka, I managed to talk to Tatsiana Khomich, sister of Maria Kalesnikava, who now lives in France and advocates for the release of her sister. In this interview published on the Day of Freedom [25th of March], we spoke about Maria Kalesnikava’s life, her arrest, her conditions of detention and Tatsiana’s advocacy work for the liberation of all Belarusian political prisoners.

Jules Bigot (JB): Can you tell us more about your sister’s life prior to her arrest?

Tatsiana Khomich (TK): Maria started music in Belarus in the 2000s, she played flute and started conducting. In 2007 she moved to Germany where she studied flute, and got two Masters degrees. She lived in Germany until 2020 and worked as conductor, artist and art manager. From 2015 she started to come more frequently to Belarus to work on musical projects. She held a cycle of lectures for adults called “Music for Adults“ in Minsk. It was fascinating at that time for Minsk and Belarus because no one had done it before. She worked both in Germany and in Belarus. She had an association for artists in Stuttgart in Germany, called InterAct and brought many projects like this to Belarus. Since she started to work more in Belarus, she was invited in 2019 to become an artistic director in the cultural hub OK16 in Minsk. It was a cool, modern place with a lot of activities in the center of the city. She had different projects there, such as modern music concerts and exhibitions. She liked it a lot, played music herself and brought musicians and composers from around Europe to Belarus.

JB: Under which conditions did Maria, who was an artist, enter politics?

TK: In May 2020, it was announced that presidential elections would be held on August 9th. At that time, she was invited by Viktar Babaryka, who had announced his candidacy for the presidency, to become part of his team. This was not surprising as they had worked on different projects together, including on the development of OK 16, and had huge plans for the hub in 2020, she told me a lot about it.

Maria joined his team in May 2020, and Viktar Babaryka was arrested on June 18th. His campaign was very successful in the beginning, and he was considered the main contender to Lukashenka. I also took part in some activities for the campaign. We, for example, collected 435 000 signatures for his candidacy in June 2020. At that time, several other political leaders were being arrested, such as Sergei Tikhanovski at the end of May 2020, who was not even able to run in the campaign. This is why Svetlana Tikhanovskaïa ran instead of him. When Viktar Babaryka was arrested, we did not know whether he would be imprisoned, or if he could register as a candidate. But on July 14th, his candidacy was denied. After his arrest Maria became his spokesperson. She was the first person to represent Viktar Babaryka and his team, after himself. In a couple of weeks, she became a very famous person in Belarus. Other candidates were also denied registration, such as Valéri Tsepkala who left the country because a criminal case was filed against him. But Svetlana Tsikhanouskaia was allowed to run for the presidency, which was surprising and was met with a lot of sexist comments by Lukashenko himself and the government. In the end, the non-registered candidates decided to support Svetlana Tikhanovskaïa as the union of candidates for the Belarusian Democratic Forces. My sister supported her as part of Viktar Babaryka’s team, just as Veronika Tsepkala did, as the representative of Valéri Tsepkala. The weeks prior to August 9th were intense, with a lot of very successful rallies all over Belarus. People were interested in what was happening, and they wanted to see change in Belarus and to have a new president.

JB: Can you tell us more about the conditions in which your sister was arrested?

TK: My sister, from the very beginning, when Viktar Babaryka and other political leaders were arrested, said that she would not leave Belarus. She insisted on this. The day of the election, 9th of August, she took part in the protests. People massively took part in these demonstrations because they saw that elections were rigged. The following day, Svetlana Tikhanovskaïa had to leave the country, she agreed to do it. Veronika Tsepkala had also left the country the day before the elections, the 8th of August. My sister therefore remained the last of this women trio. It was her decision. Several days later, there was a huge wave of arrests, where protesters were tortured and beaten. When they came out of prison, they were literally blue. As the only political leader left in the country, my sister of course spoke up and went to the demonstrations. Together with Maxim Znak, a famous lawyer who was also part of Babaryka’s team in Belarus now imprisoned, they initiated the Coordination Council for the Transfer of Power, a body for negotiations with the government. Dozens of prominent experts from different areas (human rights defenders, businessmen, artists, etc.) joined this body, and a couple of weeks later, we saw that Coordination Council members were being arrested.

My sister was kidnapped by a group of men and taken into a car in the center of Minsk on 7th of September 2020. A person that saw what happened and sent a video and the information to independent media. For a day, we did not know where she was. None of the authorities (KGB, Ministry of Interior, detentions centers, etc.) gave us information. On the 8th of September we heard news that there had been an attempt to expel Maria from Belarus at the border with Ukraine. But Maria tore up her passport, she refused to be expelled from Belarus. Since then, she has been detained, and several criminal cases were raised against her. On the 6th of September 2021, her trial ended and she was sentenced to 11 years in prison. Even today, she is still in prison.

JB: What is the situation of Maria today, as we speak?

TK: For 9 months in 2021, she was in a solitary compartment. She was alone for 9 months. After that she was transferred to the women penal colony in Gomel, where all women political prisoners are held. Being in a women’s penal colony means that you are obliged to work. If you refuse to work, you are sent to punishment cells. But the administration of the colony easily finds reasons to send women there. Punishment cells are around 3 square meters, and are very cold. There is a bench in the cell, which is closed during the day as prisoners are not allowed to lie down. Prisoners are only allowed to take simple objects with them like a towel, a soap. It is so cold in these punishment cells that women cannot sleep. My sister was punished and spent 10 days in the punishment cell in November 2022. She then said that at some point she walked 15 000 steps just to get warmer and get a little bit of sleep. When she got out of the punishment cell, she was immediately brought to hospital because she had an ulcer and was in a critical state. She was operated on and doctors commented anonymously that they could have been too late to save her.

We see more and more isolation for political prisoners and especially main political leaders like Maria but also Sergei Tikhanovski, Maxim Znak, Viktar Babaryka, Mikalai Statkevich. Isolation means that they do not receive letters from anyone. Before, communication and correspondence was restricted to close family members. There were also obligations for colonies to provide phone calls and video calls, now none are allowed for the most important political prisoners. Lawyers could not visit them either for some time.

Until March 2022, for a year and a half I could not talk with my sister and I could not see her. I left the country in August 2020 and although there could have been calls when she was in the pre-trial detention center during 2020, we didn’t have any calls. In 2022 we had 6 calls. They were video calls so I had the chance to see her, to talk to her and to see how she looked. From August 2022 we were not allowed to have calls anymore so now for more than 6 months I haven’t talked to her, seen her even by video calls.

JB: How did her arrest change your life?

TK: Since September 2021, when my sister was detained, I started advocating for her release, to support her. In 2022 I met Alès Beliatski, Nobel prize winner, and asked him “what should I do, what can I do in this situation?“, because I was in an unknown position. Before that I worked as a business analyst in IT companies in Belarus, and all of a sudden, I found myself in a totally new role. I understood that I could not do anything else. Alès Beliatski told me that I should speak up, share news about her as much as possible and try to bring attention to her situation, to her case. I started to make campaigns to support my sister, I started to actively share news about her situation on social media and gave hundreds of interviews to Belarus and international media. As the situation unfolded, I understood that the liberation of my sister would not resolve the political crisis in Belarus, so I started to advocate for the release of all political prisoners. In September 2021, I started to reach out to parliaments of different countries, I spoke in the Lithuanian Parliament, the Polish Parliaments, participated in a session in the European Parliament, in the Helsinki committee of the US Congress to speak about situation in Belarus, about the situation of my sister and all political prisoners. Since 2021, I have been the representative for political prisoners of the Coordination Council. I understood that I could be the voice of the voiceless, of people who could not speak up for themselves in Belarus. This role is even more important now that I live abroad and can speak up freely, unlike relatives and friends of prisoners in Belarus who can be detained and prosecuted for saying anything against the Belarusian government. I started to participate in a campaign launched in Europe by Libereco, where parliamentarians from around Europe can symbolically adopt political prisoners from Belarus. So far it has been a huge success because overall there are more than 300 parliamentarians participating who should, in my opinion, share news about Belarus, about political prisoners, so that as many people as possible know about the situation in Belarus. I truly believe that it’s also my responsibility to spread the word about the situation in my country.

JB: What can we, students outside of Belarus, do to help?

TK: I hope that many students will read this article and I encourage them to be curious, to speak up, to share this information about Belarus and human rights in Belarus, to challenge local politicians to address these questions. It is important to pay attention to what is going on because Belarus is geographically located at the center of Europe, and human rights have been massively suppressed in our country for years. There are also campaigns organized by different international organizations, like Amnesty International, to write letters to political prisoners or to Belarusian authorities. This can create a wave of attention and show that the Belarusian situation is followed in other countries, so I encourage you to join such campaigns. Although political prisoners receive less and less letters, it is still important to send letters. It is a simple step to take. Open any website like Wesna96.org or Politzek.me, find the address of a political prisoner, write a short letter or a postcard and send it. It will be an expression of your attention and consideration for Belarus, and I think this is a very small but important step that you can take.

JB: Do you have any particular message to share on this Day of Freedom?

TK: This is the 105th anniversary of the creation of the Belarusian People’s Republic. In 1918, for the first time Belarus was proclaimed as sovereign country, after more than 150 years of Russian empire presence. This Republic did not exist for a long time because the Soviet Union immediately emerged, and because Belarus was split in half between Soviet Union and Poland. For the last 105 years, the 25th of March has been one of the most prominent days for every Belarusian and we celebrate it even when it was not allowed, in the 1990s under Lukashenka’s regime for example. People celebrate it because it is one of the first announcements of the Belarussian People’s Republic, that’s why it’s an important day for every Belarusian until now.

2 and a half years after the 2020 demonstrations, the situation in Belarus has gone from a political crisis to becoming a geopolitical problem. Indeed, Lukashenka supports Putin’s war in Ukraine and provides Belarusian territory. But most of the Belarusians do not support this invasion, this co-aggression. Our political prisoners are also people who fought for democracy, for freedom, many of the political prisoners who arrived in 2022 are people who spoke up against the war on social media or publicly with Ukrainian flags on Belarusian streets. I think that people in Europe should know that people in Belarus have fought for a long time against this Russian influence and for democracy. Unfortunately, due to the war in Ukraine, the situation in Belarus itself has gone off the agenda, but freedom and security for Ukraine depends on whether Belarus can free itself from the influence of Russia and move on to democratic transition. And this transition of Belarus is impossible without the release of political prisoners. Europe will not be democratic until Belarus - a country in the very center of Europe - takes a democratic path. Belarus and its political prisoners need more attention than ever before.

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