When human rights are trampled by authoritarian regimes — protesters arrested, civil society crushed — ordinary citizens often bear the brunt. Behind the scenes, human rights defenders stand up for these citizens, despite the risks. Now is the moment of truth for one of them, 2022 Nobel Peace Prize winner Ales Bialiatski, who faces a court verdict on Friday in Belarus that could result in up to 12 years in prison.
His alleged offense amounts to nothing more than supporting public protest. Mr. Bialiatski, 60, is the founder of Viasna, a group that since 1996 has campaigned for Belarus’s embattled civil society, focusing on unjust arrests and human rights violations under President Alexander Lukashenko. Mr. Bialiatski fought first in Soviet times and then in recent years for an independent, free Belarus. He was arrested once before, in 2011, and released after several years in prison.
In August 2020, voters overwhelmingly threw out the autocratic and erratic Mr. Lukashenko and cast their ballots for a ticket led by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who demanded democracy and openness. In response, Mr. Lukashenko coerced Ms. Tikhanovskaya to flee the country and declared himself the winner, a blatant theft of the will of the people.
When mass demonstrations broke out, Mr. Lukashenko’s security forces arrested the protesters and beat many of them in prison. Mr. Bialiatski and Viasna swung into action, documenting the abuses, supporting families and keeping close track of the political prisoners filling up Belarusian cells.
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Today, Viasna maintains a public database on every one of these prisoners, including its founder, who was arrested in July 2021. The charges claimed Mr. Bialiatski brought money into the country to support protests and those who were incarcerated. Initially, he was charged with tax evasion and later with “funding of group actions that grossly violate public order.” In addition to seeking a dozen years in prison for Mr. Bialiatski, prosecutors asked for long sentences for three colleagues: 11 years for Valiantsin Stefanovich, 10 years for Dzmitry Salauyou and nine years for Uladzimir Labkovicz. (Mr. Salauyou is being tried in absentia because he was able to leave Belarus.) Separately, other Viasna staff members are also imprisoned.
In remarks at the Nobel ceremony in December, read aloud by his wife, Natalia Pinchuk, Mr. Bialiatski said: “It just so happens that people who value freedom the most are often deprived of it. … In my homeland, the entirety of Belarus is in a prison. Journalists, political scientists, trade union leaders are in jail … The courts work like a conveyor belt, convicts are transported to penal colonies, and new waves of political prisoners take their place.” According to Viasna, there are 1,461 political prisoners today in Belarus.
On Friday, the Leninsky District Court of Minsk should halt the conveyor belt and acquit Mr. Bialiatski, who committed no crime. He acted courageously to realize the dreams of those in Belarus who want their futures back, their rights defended and their votes properly counted.
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