Belarusian Human rights defender Ales (Aliaksandr) Bialiatski is facing 3 to 7 years in prison on State manufactured “tax evasion” charges. His struggle against the Belarusian State has come to symbolise the fight of a nation hostage to one of the last political dinosaurs of Eastern Europe. He receives widespread support from the international community.
AlesBialiatski evokes memories of freedom fighters found in the “Cold War” chapters of history books. His deep and sparkling steel-blue eyes reflect his incredible gentleness and fierce obstinacy. In Belarus, the Lukachenko presidency has come to embody the monolithic powers of the former Soviet Republics more than ever before. First elected in 1994, the regime has retained power by using constitutional amendments to authorise Lukachenko’s continued presidency. It maintains strict control over Belarusian society and its media. Ales‘s confrontation of the KGB and official censorship puts him back on the front line of a struggle against relics from the iron curtain era ; relics he first challenged when Europe was still divided.
Having graduated from the Gomel University’s Faculty of History and Philology in the early 1980s, the young Belarusian writer joined the national democratic movement, going on to organise the first demonstrations against totalitarianism. His commitment to this cause first led to his imprisonment in 1988. This was the first of a long series of arrests, detentions and other forms of harassment, which progressively worsened under the Lukachenko regime.
The State’s current prosecution of Ales on “tax evasion” charges is a pretext to eliminating a significant source of frustration to the regime. Since 1996 Ales has run the Human Rights Center “Viasna”(Viasna), an organisation assisting victims of political terror and dispatching independent information on the situation in Belarus. In 2003, the Belarusian Justice Department listed Viasna as one of a number of “illegal” organisations, ordering its compulsory liquidation. In 2005, an amendment to article 193.1 of the Belarusian Criminal Code declared any person working for an unregistered organisation to be a criminal.
The inability of independent organisations to receive funds from abroad and the overall censorship situation in Belarus severely impeded Viasna operations, jeopardising its assistance efforts for victims of political repression. Like other NGO leaders, Ales sought to overcome these restrictions by opening a Viasna bank account abroad. He kept strict control over the money deposited in that account. “That was probably what made Ales seem so dangerous in the eyes of the authorities,” saysSacha Koulaeva, head of FIDH’s Eastern Europe section. “His position, but also his serious way of working and his managerial skills, allowed the Viasna Center to survive more than seven years of prohibition, and maintain a countrywide network of 17 branches run by dozens of activists constantly dispatching updated information over the organisation’s website.”
Under the leadership of Ales, the Human Rights Center “Viasna”has sought to strengthen solidarity within the Belarusian human rights movement: “It was in 2004, it was -29°C ”, Sacha recollects. “Together with Viasna, we had organised the last meeting of the major democratic and human rights forces within Belarus. Viasna members collected delegates from stations and airports and took them to the middle of a forest outside Minsk where there was a sort of hotel, rented for the occasion on the pretext of a marriage. The meeting place was kept secret until the last minute so that it would be too late for the police to raid the area, as the hotel would be full of ambassadors and delegates from various intergovernmental organisations”.
However, freedom of expression and assembly soon became so repressed in Belarus that it became almost impossible to operate openly within the country. Ales therefore used Lithuania as a springboard, setting up summer courses on human rights, at which he often spoke. Since their establishment, hundreds of young Belarusian activists have attended these courses, which have thereby empowered a whole generation with an understanding of fundamental concepts outlawed in their own country.
After becoming FIDH vice president in 2007, Ales Bialiatski increased his involvement in regional human rights issues. From Armenia to Kazakhstan, via Georgia and Russia, Ales went on dozens of field missions. He observed political trials and engaged in difficult interventions to support prisoners’ families and investigate mass crimes, sometimes at serious personal risk. Through FIDH Ales sought to establish a mutual assistance and solidarity network extending beyond the region. This led him to participate in solidarity missions, sharing his field experience with human rights defenders from countries like Egypt, Cuba and Tunisia. His courage and commitment has won him numerous international awards1. He was also nominated and shortlisted for Nobel Prize in 2007.
The last few years of the Belarusian Republic have been marked by serious economic and social crisis , with protests against the fraudulent Lukachenko “re-election” results leading to a new wave of repression in late December 2010. The Human Rights Center “Viasna” continues to communicate information on the Belarusian situation. It is assisting some 700 persons arrested during the 2010 elections (among whom were seven presidential candidates) as well as those targeted by authorities in its aftermath. With political trials and the dismissal of lawyers, journalists and ordinary citizens participating in political activities, the Belarusian regime’s authoritarianism has intensified since the presidential election. It is causing irreversible damage to its people.
On 4 August 2011, Ales became one of the many prisoners he and his team have defended for years.
1 In 2006 Ales Bialiatski was awarded the Swedish Per Anger Prize, the Andrei Sakharov Freedom Award of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee and the Homo Homini Award of the Czech organization People in Need.
In 2010, the City of Genoa (Italy) honoured Ales Bialiatski with the title of Honorary citizen.
In 2011 he received the Freedom Award of the think tank Atlantic Council (United States).
Arrest of Ales Bialiatski