Belarusian Peace Prize Laureate Is a Longtime Pillar of Eastern Europe’s Rights

Belarusian Peace Prize Laureate Is a Longtime Pillar of Eastern

WARSAW — She has not seen her husband, the new Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ales Bialiatski, since a few days before his arrest in July 2021, and still has not been told when and for what he will be put on trial. Their letters to each other sometimes get delivered but, for long periods, don’t arrive.

“I dare not say what that this award might mean,” Natalia Pinchuk, Mr. Bialiatski’s wife, said in a telephone interview from Minsk, the Belarusian capital, after he was announced as one of the prize’s 2022 recipients on Friday. “Of course, I have hopes, but I’m afraid to express them. There is always this fear.”

Though not widely known in the West, Mr. Bialiatski, 60, has been a pillar of the human rights movement in Eastern Europe since the late 1980s, when Belarus was still part of the Soviet Union but, inspired by the reforms of Mikhail S. Gorbachev in Moscow, was slowly shaking off decades of paralyzing fear.

He was active in Tutajshyja, or “The Locals,” a dissident cultural organization that helped lay the groundwork in the late Soviet period for a movement calling for the independence of Belarus.

After the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and the 1994 election of Belarus’s authoritarian leader, President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, Mr. Bialiatski helped found and lead Viasna, or Spring, a rights group whose members are now nearly all in prison or living in exile abroad.

He served for a time as the director of a museum honoring Maksim Bahdanovic, a poet who is considered a founder of modern Belarusian literature, but was forced out of that post when Mr. Lukashenko, who has now been president for 28 years, started cracking down on the Belarusian language and promoting Russian.

Andrei Sannikov, a longtime friend of Mr. Bialiatski’s and opponent of Mr. Lukashenko’s, hailed the Nobel Peace Prize as an “extremely important” boost to “all of us who have been fighting for human rights and human dignity” in Belarus, and a reminder to the West that it needs to put more pressure on Mr. Lukashenko to release what Mr. Sannikov said were more than 4,000 political prisoners.

“I hope this sends a strong signal to both Lukashenko and his prison wardens that the world is watching and will definitely punish the perpetrators,” Mr. Sannikov, who now lives in exile in Poland, said in an interview.

Mr. Bialiatski, he added, “has been in the forefront of defending human rights against terrible odds for decades.”

When Mr. Sannikov, a former deputy foreign minister who resigned his post in 1996 to protest Mr. Lukashenko’s increasingly repressive policies, was put on trial in 2011 for taking part in peaceful protests, Mr. Bialiatski testified on his behalf — and was arrested shortly afterward. Put on trial on trumped-up charges of tax evasion, Mr. Bialiatski was sentenced to four and a half years in jail. He was released on amnesty in 2014.

The 2011 charges related to money he had received from abroad to help fund the Viasna rights group, of which he was president, and were based in part on confidential banking information provided to Belarusian prosecutors by Lithuania and Poland. The case, Mr. Sannikov said, showed how the European authorities had sometimes been complicit in helping Mr. Lukashenko consolidate his increasingly autocratic regime.

Europe and the West in general “do not pay enough attention to human rights in Belarus,” he said, describing conditions in Belarusian prisons as “absolutely terrible,” including frequent use of torture and other abuses.

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