Ales Bialiatski | Enemy of the dictator

The Nobel Peace Prize winner from Belarus has been campaigning for human rights and freedoms from the Soviet days

Published - October 09, 2022 01:27 am IST

In 1996, when Belarus was in the midst of a series of street protests, Ales Bialiatski, a young activist who started campaigning for human rights during the Soviet days, formed Viasna-96 with the aim of helping arrested protesters and their families. The Minsk-based organisation became Viasna Human Rights Center, a nationwide NGO, in 1999. But when the regime of Alexander Lukashenko became increasingly authoritarian, Viasna had several run-ins with the authorities.

In 2001, the Supreme Court of Belarus cancelled the registration of the NGO for its “participation in observation of the presidential election” in the same year. But the crackdown did not stop Viasna or Mr. Bialiatski from doing what they have been doing for years — relentless campaigns for human rights and freedoms in the former Soviet Republic. Those campaigns would finally bring the Nobel Peace Prize to Mr. Bialiatski, who is currently in jail. 

Mr. Bialiatski, 60, shared the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize with the Russian human rights organisation Memorial and the Ukrainian human rights organisation Center for Civil Liberties. “The Peace Prize laureates... have for many years promoted the right to criticise power and protect the fundamental rights of citizens. Together they demonstrate the significance of civil society for peace and democracy,” said the Norwegian Nobel Committee in Oslo in a statement. 

Fight for democracy

Apart from setting up Viasna and leading the fight for democracy in his home country, Mr. Bialiatski also served as the vice-president of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) in 2007-16, one of the oldest international human rights organisations of which Viasna is a part. Mr. Bialiatski is the current chairperson of Viasna, which The organisation has 200 members across the country. 

According to the New York-based Human Rights Foundation, Mr. Bialiatski is also a writer and a member of the Belarusian Writers Union.

The activist was arrested on July 14, 2021, as Belarus was witnessing another wave of mass protests triggered by claims of fraud in the 2020 Presidential election in which Mr. Lukashenko, who first became President in 1994, “won” a sixth consecutive term.

Mr. Lukashenko, who once termed himself Europe’s “last and only dictator”, cracked down on the protesters, Opposition leaders and activists who challenged the election results.

Mr. Bialiatski has been detained since then without trial. Human Rights Watch, the New York-based organisation, reported that he has been charged with tax evasion and faces up to seven years in prison. 

This is not Mr. Bialiatski’s first stint in prison. Between 2011 and 2014, he had spent about three years in jail on tax evasion charges. Since Viasna’s registration in Belarus was cancelled, the NGO reportedly had foreign bank accounts which became grounds for persecution of its chairman.  As a prisoner, he wrote a book titled Enlightened by Belarus, which was banned in the country in 2014.

Mr. Bialiatski was awarded the Right Livelihood Award, nicknamed the alternative Nobel, in 2020. The democratic opposition in Belarus, of which Mr. Bialiatski is a part, also received the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize in the same year. 

Personal hardship

“Despite tremendous personal hardship, Mr. Bialiatski has not yielded an inch in his fight for human rights and democracy in Belarus,” the Nobel Committee said on Friday

Answering a question on whether the Peace Prize can increase the hardship of the awardees, Berit Reiss-Andersen, chairperson of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee, said: “We are particularly concerned about Mr. Bialiatski who is detained under very hard conditions in the prison and we do pray that this prize will not affect him negatively but we hope it might boost his morale.”

“This is a dilemma that the Nobel committee always faces. But, we also have the point of view that the individuals behind these organisations have chosen to take a risk and pay a high price and show courage to fight for what they believe in,” she said. .

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