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Bialiatski: veteran rights defender in authoritarian Belarus

Ales Bialiatski, the head of Belarus rights group Viasna, has battled against repression for a quarter of a century and spent years in jail for his efforts. He spent his 60th birthday in prison on September 25, as he did his 50th, but won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday in the wake of historic demonstrations and a severe crackdown in his ex-Soviet country. The 60-year-old was arrested in July last year on charges of tax evasion, a move that critics of Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko saw as a thinly veiled tactic to silence his work. His wife, Natalya Pinchuk, told AFP she was “overwhelmed with emotions” after the decision was announced. “He always writes that everything is fine. He doesn’t complain about his health — he tries not to upset me,” she said of his letters from prison. “‘I’m not lucky with jubilees,'” she said he wrote ahead of his 60th. “He was also in prison when he turned 50,” Pinchuk added. Bialiatski’s organisation, which translates to “Spring” and was founded in 1996, is Belarus’s most prominent rights group, whose work has charted the increasingly authoritarian tendencies of Lukashenko and his security forces. Established during mass pro-democracy protests several years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it sought to help detained protesters and their families. In the years since, Viasna and Bialiatski have gained prominence as Lukashenko’s regime has leaned on more brutal ways of retaining its tight grip on power. When massive rallies broke out across the country against Lukashenko’s claim to a sixth presidential term in August 2020, Viasna meticulously tracked numbers of people detained at protests and after police raids across Belarus in the months afterwards. In the wake of the vote, Bialiatski described “real terror” taking hold of regional towns and in the capital Minsk as authorities worked to quash dissent. “The goal is very simple — to retain power at any cost and instill fear in society so that there are no protests against the falsification of these elections,” he said. Bialiatski was also part of a council of opposition figures — that included previous Belarusian Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich — tasked with organising new free and fair elections. But in July 2021, Lukashenko’s crackdown came to his doorstep with coordinated raids on a wide range of civil society groups, including Viasna’s offices and Bialiatski’s home, in a sweep that the group called a “new wave” of repression. Viasna said last year that apart from Bialiatski, six of its members who were arrested following the elections were in jail. – Another birthday behind bars – “The brutal crackdown on Viasna is part of the wider ‘purge’ of civil society declared by President Alexander Lukashenko,” Human Rights Watch said last year. It was not the first time Bialiatski had run into trouble with security forces in Belarus, which is often described as “Europe’s last dictatorship”. In August 2011, he was handed a 4.5-year prison sentence for tax evasion in a move widely seen as politically motivated in the wake of an earlier presidential election claimed by Lukashenko. At the time, a court ruled that Viasna had to vacate offices it used for the previous 12 years. Bialiatski was released from that prison sentence in 2014, 18 months early. “During his 25 years of activism, Bialiatski has faced serial repression,” Human Rights Watch said last year after his pretrial detention was extended. Bialiatski has also authored several books. His activism has been recognised with several awards, mostly from Western institutions, including the Andrei Sakharov Freedom Award. He was previously nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize five times. He was born in 1962 in a region of the Soviet Union near Finland and served in the military before studying philology.

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