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Ales Bialiatski, Belarusian human rights warrior

Elena Doronina
December 9, 2022

This year’s Nobel Peace Prize co-winner Ales Bialiatski will not be able to receive the award in person. The human rights activist and opponent of the Lukashenko regime has been a political prisoner in Minsk since 2021.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Ales Bialiatski in a courtroom cage in August 2011.
Belarusian Nobel Peace Prize winner Ales Bialiatski in a Minsk courtroom in 2011Image: Tatyana Zenkovich/EPA/dpa/picture alliance

Belarusian human rights activist Ales Bialiatski won't be able to attend the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony in Oslo on December 10. The reason? He's in pre-trial detention in Minsk.

He will be represented by his wife Natalia Pinchuk and staff from the Viasna Human Rights Center, an organization that he founded to assist political prisoners in Belarus.

With the award, the Nobel Committee will honor Bialiatski's 35 years of fighting for human rights, highlighting the fact that he and dozens of other human rights activists are behind bars and awaiting trial in Belarus.

In addition to Bialiatski, two other human rights groups will jointly receive the Nobel Peace Prize this year: The Russian organization Memorial, which was shut down by Vladimir Putin, and Ukraine's Center for Civil Liberties.

Unconventional beginnings

Bialiatski was born on September 5, 1962 to Belarusian parents in the northwestern Russian Republic of Karelia, which borders Finland. While studying at Gomel State University, he became passionate about the Belarusian language and history, which was unusual in the Soviet Union at the time. He and a group of like-minded students even began speaking Belarusian rather than Russian in their daily lives. During his studies, he met Natalia Pinchuk in 1981, and they married in 1987. The couple has a son who, together with his mother, now hopes for his father's release.

After graduating, Bialiatski worked as a teacher. In the mid-1980s, he joined the graduate school at the Institute of Literature at the Academy of Sciences in Minsk, and was one of the founders of the Belarusian Union of Writers and the Martyrology of Belarus association, which investigated communist repression prior to World War II.

In the 1980s, the young writer was among the organizers of the first oppositional demonstration in the Belarusian Soviet Republic. In October 1988, Bialiaski joined the organizing committee of the Belarusian Popular Front movement, which was the basis of the first opposition faction in the Belarusian parliament that formed in the next year and a half, and later the first opposition political party.

Protesters hold up signs outside the Belarusian embassy in Berlin.
Protesters hold up signs demanding Bialiatski's release outside the Belarusian embassy in Berlin on December 9, 2022.Image: Yana Karpova/DW

A lifetime of activism

In 1994, Alexander Lukashenko won the first presidential elections that followed Belarusian independence. His political regime began taking on increasingly authoritarian features. The people suffering under these circumstances needed legal, material and psychological assistance, which inspired Bialiatski to found the Viasna Human Rights Center amid mass opposition protests. Later, he would say that he never expected to devote himself to human rights work for so many more years thereafter.

Viasna activists monitored elections, challenged illegal arrests and fought the death penalty. A nuisance to the authorities, Viasna was dissolved by a Supreme Court ruling in 2003. But the activists continued their work underground.

In 2006, former dissident and President of the Czech Republic Vaclav Havel presented Bialiatski with the Homo Homini Award for outstanding service to human rights, democracy and non-violent resolution of political conflicts. From 2007 to 2016, Bialiatski served as vice president of the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH). He was later succeeded in this position by Viasna Deputy Chairman Valentin Stefanovic.

Imprisoned for ‘tax evasion'

Officially, there are no political prisoners in Belarus. People are imprisoned for what the authorities describe as "participating in riots," "insulting Lukashenko," "extremism" or "financial fraud." The current accusations against 60-year-old Bialiatski are not the first.

In 2011, authorities in Minsk obtained information about Viasna's bank accounts in Lithuania and declared the money to be the personal assets of Bialiatski and Stefanovic. They were subsequently arrested "for concealment of income and tax evasion." In response, the European Parliament issued a resolution demanding the immediate release of the opposition figures.

Bialiatski was sentenced to four and a half years in prison, but was released early after three years in 2014 under an amnesty. Afterwards, he vowed to continue his campaign for human rights. "I want Belarus to become a country without political prisoners," he stressed.

Belarus Ales Bialiatski
In 2014, Bialiatski told reporters he believed that his winning the Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize in 2013 contributed to his release from prison at the time.Image: CTK/IMAGO

2020: A pivotal year

At the height of mass protests in Belarus in response to the Lukashenko regime's rigged presidential elections in August 2020, Bialiatski joined the opposition's coordinating council. During this period, human rights activists and Viasna representatives played a crucial role in supporting victims of state violence, gathering evidence of rights violations against those who had been imprisoned.

On July 14, 2021, Bialiatski was arrested again, and has since been held in pre-trial detention. He stands accused of "organizing or actively participating in actions that grossly violate public order." His deputy Stefanovic and Viasna lawyer Vladimir Labkovic were arrested on the same day. All three face a prison sentence of seven to 12 years.

This article was originally written in Russian.