Maria Kalesnikava, flautist in Belarusian jails

Editorial 18.03.2024

Maria Kalesnikova is an artist, flutist, and politician. But a woman, or a man, who is committed to democracy in Belarus is in danger. Maria Kalesnikava was arrested in September 2020 and sentenced to 11 years in prison. In November 2021, we dedicated this article to her while she was detained and under heavy surveillance. However, since February 14, 2023, we no longer have any reliable information about her. She simply disappeared into a Belarusian jail. Neither her father nor her sister Tatyana Khomich, a tireless spokesperson, have received any news from the Gomel Women's Penal Colony No. 4 where she is believed to be detained. To date, we are awaiting the decision of the United Nations Working Group, which will recognize the enforced disappearance of Maria Kolesnikova and send an official request to Belarus to inform the authorities of the activist's whereabouts and to give her father the opportunity to visit her; Recalling that the incommunicado detention of Belarusian prisoners constitutes cruel and inhuman treatment and may amount to torture.

"When her letters were still coming in, Masha would often share her thoughts about how she was coping with the conditions," says her sister Tatyana.

In Belarus, 655 people have been sentenced to restrictions on their liberty and more than 170 women are detained in detention centres and settlements. After 2020, women became victims of enforced disappearances, torture, abuse and other forms of physical and psychological pressure, such as taking their children from them and placing them in the care of state welfare.

This tendency towards violence and coercion by authoritarian regimes to muzzle artists has increased in recent years, while at the same time the opportunities to be informed, to share knowledge, knowledge and cultural goods have been increased by social networks and digital tools. This trend is also felt in our liberal democracies.

They are everywhere, near and far, men, women, young and old, unknown or famous. They play music, sing, go on stage, dance, make films, draw, write books in conditions where every word, every sound, every image is torn from the shadows and anguish.

Human Landscapes is an independent space where artistic freedom is celebrated, and where the diversity of all cultural expressions is encouraged. I would like to remind myself today that "artistic freedom is the freedom to imagine, create, and distribute diverse cultural expressions without government censorship, political interference, or pressure from non-state actors. It includes the right of every citizen to access these works and is essential to the well-being of societies" according to the 2005 UNESCO Convention.
I would like to remind us that defending this freedom of artistic expression cannot be dissociated from defending the freedom of the people themselves.
And if Human Landscapes is not a political platform, I would like to take advantage of our chance to enjoy this freedom of expression, here and now, to make visible their distress and their resistance. It is for these reasons that I am talking to you about Maria Kalesnikava, a Belarusian musician and member of the opposition to President Alexander Lukashenko, who was formed during the 2020 protests.

Maria Kalesnikava was abducted on 7 September 2020 and forced into exile. Forcibly taken to the border with Ukraine, she was arrested there after tearing up her passport. Like many others, she chose to stay in her country.
On 6 September, she was tried behind closed doors and sentenced to 11 years in prison for "plotting to seize power" and "calling for actions against national security"8.

A flutist trained at the Belarusian State Academy of Music, Maria Kalesnikava obtained two master's degrees in Stuttgart in 2012 and since then she has divided her career between her country and Germany. In 2017 she co-founded Artemp, an art collective and in 2019 she became the artistic director of the OK16 cultural club in Minsk.

To support his action and courage, he has been awarded several awards; the "Intrepid Word" Prize in Germany (Rhineland-Palatinate), the Sakharov Prize awarded by the European Parliament, the Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize 2021. Vaclav Havel, a great resistance fighter and then President of the Czech Republic, has also described wonderfully well in his book The Power of the Powerless, the unsuspected extent of the powers of civil society to build small alternative societies, music groups, sports associations, literary clubs in the face of authoritarianism and censorship.
The Axel Springer Foundation for Freedom today installed a street sign in front of the Belarusian embassy in Berlin bearing the name of imprisoned Belarusian opposition leader Maria Kolesnikova.

Every day, initiatives in support of Maria are born: messages or postcards are posted on her Facebook page, concerts are organized on digital platforms, works are written and produced.

I would like to mention two of them:
"Dream House" by the Mixed Sound Personnel (Viktoriia Vitrenko, voice, music & Lucas Gerin, e-drums, music) feat. Pauline Drand (lyrics, music, voice & text) & Vj Yarkus (video art) in which her integrated Maria's latest piece on the flute recorded in Stuttgart and electronically processed the voice of her last speeches.

And " À l'air libre", a series of works for flute performed by Keiko Murakami and written by the French composer Frédéric Durieux, a French composer, to demand the release of Maria Kalesnikava, The first episode was released on November 22 and the second on November 15, 2023.

Today I have told you about Maria Kolesnikova but I could mention so many other names of artists like her, persecuted, exiled or imprisoned such as: Ayesha Khan, Afghan singer exiled in Spain fleeing the Taliban, the Kurdish singer Nüdem Durak sentenced in 2015 to 19 years in prison, the Cuban performer Luis Manuel Otero Alcnatara Sentenced in 2022 to 5 years in prison, Ashraf Fayad, poet spent 8 years in the prisons of Saudi Arabia and was finally released on August 23, 2022 but how many others remain detained.

And since numbers sometimes better illustrate what words are trying to say, I encourage you to visit the website of Freemuse, an independent international non-governmental organization that defends freedom of artistic expression and cultural diversity and whose 2020 report is alarming.

Sandrine Maricot Despretz