(LONDON) — A top jailed Belarus opposition leader, who became the face of its pro-democracy movement, is reportedly in intensive care after being hospitalized for an unknown reason, according to her supporters.
Maria Kalesnikava was one of three women who found themselves at the head of mass street protests in 2020 that came close to toppling Belarus’ long-ruling dictator Alexander Lukashenko.
Kalesnikava, 39, was imprisoned after she tore up her passport to prevent Lukashenko’s security forces from forcibly deporting her in 2020. She became one of Belarus’ most prominent political prisoners, sentenced to 11 years in prison in September 2021 on charges of extremism and seeking to illegally seize power that were widely condemned by western countries as politically motivated.
On Tuesday, an official Twitter account linked to another jailed opposition figure Viktor Babariko, tweeted that Kalesnikava was now in intensive care.
“Masha Kalesnikava is in intensive care. The reason is unknown,” the account tweeted, saying the information was confirmed by her lawyer.
The account said Kalesnikava is in a hospital in the city of Gomel, saying she was brought there on Monday and hospitalized in a surgical department before being transferred to intensive care.
The account added that Kalesnikava’s lawyers had been complaining to authorities about the state of her health but that they had been ignored.
A former professional musician, Kalesnikava was initially a spokeswoman for Babariko, but teamed up with Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya to challenge Lukashenko in a 2020 presidential election after Babariko and Tsikhanouskaya’s husband were barred from running and jailed. She became one of the faces of the protests that erupted after Lukashenko declared victory in the vote that was widely criticized as rigged, becoming known for the heart shape sign she often flashed with her hands.
Lukashenko’s regime was shaken by the protests– that saw hundreds of thousands demonstrate peacefully for weeks— but he eventually succeeded in smothering the uprising with a relentless crackdown, during which security forces have arrested thousands of people. Kalesnikava became one of the only top leaders of the protests who remained in the country, after most were driven into exile.
After Kalesnikava was sentenced last year, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned it, calling it “further evidence of the regime’s total disregard for the human rights and fundamental freedoms of the people of Belarus.”
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