SASHA KOULAEVA: “ALES HAS ALWAYS GONE ANYWHERE WHERE THERE WAS A NEED FOR SOLIDARITY”

Ales Bialiatski is known not only as the founder of the Belarusian Human Rights Center Viasna, but also as a human rights defender in many countries throughout the world. Not everyone in Belarus may know that Ales was twice elected vice-president of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), which is headquartered in Paris. They also may not know that this organization took on a new direction of work thanks to our fellow citizen.

We asked Sasha Koulaeva, FIDH Head of the Eastern Europe and Central Asia Desk, to tell us more about Ales Bialiatski’s activities on the international arena.

– Sasha, can you recall how Belarus’s Viasna came to join FIDH?

Viasna joined the International Federation for Human Rights during the 2004 International Congress in Quito, Ecuador. I remember it very well: it was spring and Ales Bialiatski and Valentin Stefanovich came to Ecuador for the Congress. In a general vote, the Congress (which is made up of representatives of all member organizations from over 100 countries) voted to accept Viasna into the Federation. Actually, this was also a special case. Viasna had been disbanded not long before this and, naturally, the International Board preparing its candidacy was faced with a dilemma. We had already had cases where, bearing in mind the risks of this profession, member organizations were shuttered by authoritarian regimes or were not even registered at all, but accepting what was basically a freshly banned organization was not, shall we say, a frequent occurrence. However, we knew Viasna well and we had had the chance not very long before this to reassure ourselves yet again about how effective and strong this organization was, in spite of the difficult situation in which it found itself.

Several months after it was disbanded, Viasna became the organizer of a large international forum for human rights activists, which took place outside of Minsk in late January 2004, two months before our Congress in Ecuador. The goal of this forum was to discuss the deterioration of the human rights situation and the escalating trend to destroy civil society in Belarus. Participants included about 200 people from many Belarusian human rights organizations and representatives from embassies and international organizations. Also present were Russians, including the best known Russian human rights defender, Sergey Kovalev, as well as representatives from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Council of Europe’s Directorate General of Human Rights, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, and the head of the OSCE office in Minsk. Wives of missing politicians and even the mother of Dzmitry Zavadski, the ORT cameraman, also attended. And, of course, FIDH representatives, since we worked on this event with Viasna.

We were immediately immersed in the local atmosphere: one hotel after another backed out of our previously signed contracts for a wide variety of reasons, from burst pipes to unscheduled events. We had to face the question of whether we could hold the forum at all.

– You once spoke about how you ended up having to hold the forum practically in the snow banks of a Belarusian forest…How did that happen?

– This was another example of Viasna’s creativity. They rented a small cottage in the forest, pretending that it was for a family celebration, and the location of the forum was keep secret until the time of its opening ceremony. Participants were met and driven in cars to a destination known only to the organizers. And by the time the hall was packed with representatives of embassies and international organizations, the government still had not decided what to do. At the time, it seemed like an extreme situation: January, 30 below, unheated premises, dozens of hurriedly shuttered organizations gathered surreptitiously in the forest… How could it be any worse? But it will soon be totally impossible to hold any sort of forum like this at all in Belarus, and for how many years will the noose around civil society continue to be tightened…. The forum went off very professionally, at the highest level, and we look back on it as a very successful event that vividly showed off the organizational skills of both Viasna and its director—Ales Bialiatski. So when Viasna was accepted as a member of the Federation, we did not have any doubts as to the viability or character of our new member.

This initiative displayed another important trait—Ales’s firm belief in the utmost importance of collaboration between Belarusian human rights defenders and their regional and international counterparts, and international solidarity as such. I thought about this when, soon after Ales’s arrest, his Viasna colleagues from all over Europe gathered with only several days warning and during vacation time in August to discuss actions they could take together to mobilize all efforts to help Ales and Viasna during the critical time after his arrest and amid mass repressive actions. Everyone came: no one remained on the sidelines. This was, of course, a result of all Ales’ activities, his regular contacts, the confidence that all his partners have in him and his team, his personal qualities—his open mindedness, his range of knowledge, and his many years of work to strengthen solidarity among human rights defenders. People in Belarus may know less about his international activities. They were also directed at strengthening solidarity, based on the universality of human rights, and thus, the fight for human rights. Like his colleagues, Ales travelled as an observer to elections in the most diverse corners of Europe and he also travelled with missions of solidarity to Cuba, where he gave support to democracy activists.

– Sasha, please tell us a little about Ales’ trips to various countries. Wasn’t he, as a matter of fact, practically the first Belarusian to visit the countries of the “Arab Spring” after their revolutions?

– Yes, he was in Tunisia right after the revolution, but he was in Egypt even earlier, before power changed hands there. I remember that after his trip to Egypt, state television even prepared another pasquinade, something to the effect of “look how well these human rights defenders live, travelling around to resorts.” And this was an emergency session of the FIDH International Board. We were organizing basically the same thing we organized in Minsk in 2004—a meeting of local activists who found themselves in the most difficult of conditions at that moment. By that time Ales had already been elected to the International Board of FIDH, which is the organization’s governing body. And his election in 2007 as vice-president of FIDH, this was also a significant moment. This was actually the very first person from the former Soviet Union to be elected at a Congress that brought together all member organizations from throughout the world. This reflects both the development of our organization and progress in the region: founded on the principle of membership, the Federation had never had representatives from behind the Iron Curtain, and in the years after the curtain’s fall, the landscape of civil society in these countries changed greatly. But it was no accident that specifically Ales, with his dedication to solidarity, support, and sharing experiences, became so actively involved in the life of the Federation and earned universal support and respect there.  He became vice-president three years after Viasna joined the Federation, which is a very rare thing to happen.

– Did representatives of your organization have any problems because of trips to our country?

– Also in 2007, the Tunisian human rights defender Souhayr Belhassen was elected president of FIDH. She visited Belarus soon after her election. We were working on a report about detention conditions in the country’s prisons, and Souhayr met with victims of rights violations and the families of political prisoners. I remember that she became very involved in the campaign to release Klimov from prison. Ales and Viasna were, of course, the initiators and organizers of this trip, which was packed with meetings and very successful. But after this, Souhayr was banned from entering Belarus. When she tried to go again to attend the proceedings on the final refusal to register Viasna, it was explained to her by the embassy of the Republic of Belarus that she was under the influence of “misguided” people… Souhayr values Ales and his work very highly, but they also simply have a lot in common, despite the differences in their life stories. Souhayr always reiterates how struck she was during her trip to Belarus by the similarities between the regimes of Lukashenko and Ben Ali, who still held power in Tunisia at that time. Seventeen different legal proceedings were brought against her, and the Tunisian League for Human Rights also found itself in the same kind of marginalized position as Viasna. But miracles do happen and the regime that seemed eternal fell after 23 years of repression in the same month of December 2010, when Belarus entered a period of authoritarian tyranny that no longer even tried to conceal itself. Members of the Tunisian League for Human Rights, practically all of whom were convicted several times, were nominated for leadership posts, joined the Interim Commission for the Realization of Revolutionary Goals, the election commission, etc. Together with them, FIDH prepared a Forum of Democratic Forces, to which we also wanted to bring representatives from Eastern Europe, since they would have something to share about both positive and negative experiences in the transition period. Some countries even had warnings for colleagues about how quickly changes that seemed irreversible could be turned back…

– How was Ales received there after the terrible events that occurred here in December 2010?

– I would say that people avidly listened to Ales’s speech. You could feel how important the fresh air that these discussions let in was for all the people in the audience. But, of course, the gloomy picture of what happened in Belarus after December 2010 left a distinct impression, and the Forum closed with the adoption of resolution of solidarity between all the democratic forces in Tunisia and civil society in Belarus. After the Forum, Ales was received by Tunisia’s minister of foreign affairs, who, incidentally, made an explicit call for Bialiatski’s immediate release after he was arrested.

– Many of Ales’s colleagues who are human rights defenders from CIS countries also came out in support of him. But I know that he also tried to support them and help them in their work. Can you recall his path through the former Soviet Union?

– Well, it would be nearly impossible to count how many trips he took at a regional level! In these cases, Ales had a perfect understanding of the situation and he spoke with people in their own language. But it wasn’t all about solidarity: Ales participated in monitoring reports, worked on the strategic development of FIDH’s regional network, advanced the initiatives of research missions, and participated himself in these missions. I travelled with him to Georgia right after the war with Russia in 2008. There we met with families of political prisoners, held meetings on international justice, and visited a camp for people displaced by the conflict. In Armenia, Ales also worked on the topic of political prisoners in the wake of the 2008 crackdown on demonstrations that ended with the deaths of ten people. He joined a research mission to Kyrgyzstan at the height of the ethnic conflict that took place in the southern part of the country in 2010. And he almost died during this trip. After visiting the village of Papan (the native village of the mayor of Osh), where Ales and two Kyrgyz members of FIDH were conducting an investigation, the rear axle of their car was sawed through and their wheels flew off as they drove through the mountains. Fortunately, nothing bad happened. During the same trip, one of our colleagues was summoned to the Public Prosecutor’s Office because it was dangerous to speak the truth about the events in the south, and it still is now. Naturally, Ales accompanied her to the interrogation. In general, the idea of solidarity was the most important element for him during this trip to the south of Kyrgyzstan, to an area that had been seized by violence. He believed that we do not have the right to abandon our colleagues in the face of calamity. He believed that we also had to be there.

This was also true of his intensive efforts to foster mutual assistance and solidarity with human rights defenders who are themselves victims of repressive actions. He accompanied Vladimir Labkovich, a lawyer for Viasna, to observe the trial of Oleg Orlov, chair of the Human Rights Center Memorial, when the latter was sued by Chechnya’s President Kadyrov. He travelled to Ust-Kamenogorsk, in remote Kazakhstan, to see the penal colony where Yevgeny Zhovtis, head of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights, was being held, and was even able to meet with him. In December 2010, he visited Azimzhan Askarov, the Kyrgyz human rights defender of Uzbek origin who was sentenced to life imprisonment after the ethnic conflicts in the southern part of the country, at the Bishkek prison where he was being held. So I am not surprised by the letters that are coming in to Ales from all over the world: from Columbia, from a human rights defender and FIDH secretary general whom Ales drove all around Belarus for meetings with victims of rights violations; from Zhovtis, who is still in the penal colony at Ust-Kamenogorsk; from the Human Rights Center Memorial… You reap what you sow. This is true of both the good and the bad. Ales always went anywhere where there was a need for solidarity. In some sense, he is now in a place that needs solidarity…a Belarusian prison. This is also a result of his work, albeit a frightening and unjust one, but this is how the current regime appraises his activities.

– Yes, Ales himself even wrote that his imprisonment was perfectly logical—after all he is a human rights defender! Why do you think that human rights defenders are thrown in prison?

– With his personal qualities as a human being, a human rights defender, and an organizer, Ales is now more dangerous to the regime than ever. Because regardless of whatever slanderous statements they make against him, his reputation, his work, his assistance, which are now reflected in the fates of many people known and unknown to him—all this makes him invulnerable to the regime. Alas, they can break many people physically. But attempts to declare Ales a thief and a fraud are so absurd that I think soon it will become clear to them that they have reached a dead end. Herein lies the difference between a human rights defender suffering reprisals and a member of the opposition, even one who is pure and good. None of our colleagues currently in prison are there because they defended their views, which is in and of itself worthy of respect, or their parties or movements. Human rights defenders end up in prison because they challenge Repression as such to defend those in need of defense. But I am convinced that Ales and his extraordinary team will have the last word in this battle. The fact that Viasna members are working so valiantly and effectively despite receiving the worst blow in their complicated existence with the arrest of Ales is a proof and guarantee of this. And FIDH will always be with them wherever we can help.

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