Nobel Peace Prize winner Ales Bialiatski sentenced to 10 years in prison in Belarus

Ales Bialiatski, Belarus’s top human rights advocate and one of the winners of the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize, was sentenced to 10 years in prison in Minsk on Friday.

Bialiatski and three other top figures of the Viasna human rights centre he founded were convicted of financing anti-government protests. They were arrested and jailed after massive protests over a 2020 election that gave authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko a new term in office.

Lukashenko — in office since 1994 — has suppressed opposition and cracked down on independent news media. The 2020 protests persisted for several months, the largest wave of protest to hit Belarus, and authorities took harsh action.

More than 35,000 people were arrested, and thousands were beaten by police.

The charges against Bialiatski and his colleagues were connected to Viasna’s provision of money to political prisoners and helping pay their legal fees.

A white-haired man is shown in closeup sitting inside a prison cage.
Nobel Prize winner Ales Bialiatski is seen in the defendants’ cage in the courtroom at a hearing in Minsk on Jan. 5. (Vitaly Pivovarchik/Belta/AFP/Getty Images)

Bialiatski was honoured by the Nobel committee in Oslo in October along with the Russian human rights organization Memorial and the Ukrainian human rights organization Center for Civil Liberties.

Oleg Orlov, co-chair of Memorial, attempted to fly to Minsk to support Bialiatski on Friday, but was prevented from boarding the flight, with airline representatives telling him Belarus had barred him from entering the country.

“Crimes are better committed without witnesses,” Orlov remarked.

Canada foreign minister joined the international calls for Bialiatski’s release.

The sentencing of Bialiatski and members of human rights group Viasna “is another example of the Lukashenko regime’s brutal repression of human rights,” Mélanie Joly said in a tweet.

Democracy advocate since the ’80s

Bialiatski, 60, has been an advocate for democracy in Belarus since the 1980s and formed Viasna, which means “spring.”

He was previously imprisoned between 2011 and 2014 for tax evasion, charges his supporters said where politically motivated. 

Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who has been in exile in Poland and then Lithuania since the 2020 election, denounced the court verdict on Friday as “appalling.” She identified the other defendants in Minsk as being Valiantsin Stefanovic and Uladzimir Labkovich.

“We must do everything to fight against this shameful injustice [and] free them,” Tsikhaouskaya wrote in a tweet.

Dzmitry Salauyou, who fled the country, was sentenced in absentia to eight years in prison.

In his final address to the court, Bialiatski urged the authorities to “stop the civil war in Belarus.” Bialiatski said it became obvious to him from the case files that “the investigators were fulfilling the task they were given: to deprive Viasna human rights advocates of freedom at any cost, destroy Viasna and stop our work.”

The Norwegian Helsinki Committee, a non-governmental organization working to ensure that human rights are respected in practice, said that it was “shocked by the cynicism behind the sentences that were just issued to our Belarusian friends in Minsk.”

“The trial shows how Lukashenko’s regime punishes our colleagues, human rights defenders, for standing up against the oppression and injustice,” Secretary General Berit Lindeman said in a statement.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said in a tweet that the proceedings against the activists “were a farce.”

“The Minsk regime is fighting civil society with force and prison,” she added. “This is just as much a daily disgrace as Lukashenko’s support for Putin’s war [in Ukraine]. We call for the end of political persecution and freedom for the more than 1,400 political prisoners.”

Bialiatski is the fourth person in the 121-year history of the Nobel Prizes to receive the award while in prison or detention.

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