Ales Bialiatski, head of the Belarusian human rights group Viasna (“Spring”) and imprisoned since last year, won the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize two years after historic opposition demonstrations in Belarus followed by a ruthless crackdown in this former soviet republic.
Bialiatski, 60 years old, was arrested in July 2021 for “tax evasion”. A case perceived as a revenge of President Alexander Lukashenko, in power since 1994 and who silences any form of criticism through arrests or repression, as he did in the summer of 2020.
For weeks, tens of thousands of Belarusians took to the streets to protest against the re-election for a sixth term of the head of state, which they considered fraudulent. Together with them, Viasna registered the arrests, the accusations of torture and the wounded.
It is not the first time in prison for Ales Bialiatski. His previous arrest, from 2011 to 2014, was also officially for tax reasons. His arrest then came months after another presidential election that sparked equally repressed opposition demonstrations.
What is Bialiatski’s trajectory?
“In his 25 years of militantism, Bialiatski has suffered serial repression,” the NGO Human Rights Watch pointed out last year, when his name was already cited as a possible Nobel Peace Prize winner.
After having subdued the 2020 demonstrations, the Belarusian regime attacked the press and organizations considered critical, imprisoning their leaders or militants. Viasna and Bialiatski were no exception.
“Viasna’s brutal crackdown is just one part of President Lukashenko’s purge of civil society,” Human Rights Watch said at the time.
Founded in 1996 during the massive pro-democracy demonstrations in Belarus, then led autocratically by Lukashenko, Viasna started out by providing aid to imprisoned people and their families.
His work later extended to the defense of human rights in general.
A member of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Viasna quickly became an essential observer of attacks on rights, be it counting detainees, defending prisoners or monitoring elections.
Opposition to Aleksander Lukashenko
Bialiatski, with gray hair and a white beard, has been one of the members of the “coordination council” created by the Belarusian opposition last year to question the re-election considered fraudulent of Alexander Lukashenko and force the power to compromise.
This body also includes the Nobel Prize for Literature Svetlana Alexievich, who lives in exile, and the opposition Maria Kolesnikova, recently sentenced to 11 years in prison.
Almost all the members of this council have been imprisoned or have gone into exile, and dozens of independent media and NGOs have been liquidated by court decision. Several members of Viasna were arrested, or their homes have been the subject of numerous raids.
“Both in small cities and in regional ones or in the capital, there is real terror,” Ales Bialiatski assured in an interview in August 2020, days after Lukashenko’s disputed re-election.
“The goal is very simple: retain power at any cost and sow fear in society,” he predicted.