WARSAW – She had not seen her husband, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Alice Bialiatsky, for a few days before his arrest in July 2021, and she had not yet been told when he would be brought to trial. Sometimes their messages are delivered to each other but, for long periods, they don’t arrive.
“I don’t dare say what this award might mean,” Natalia Pinchuk, Mr Bialyatsky’s wife, said in a phone interview from Minsk, the capital of Belarus, after his announcement on Friday. “Of course, I have hopes, but I am afraid to express them. There is always that fear.”
Although not widely known in the West, Mr. Bialiatsky, 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 was inspired by the reforms of Mikhail S. Gorbachev in Moscow was slowly emerging from decades of paralyzing fear.
He was active in the Tutajshyja, or “The Locals,” an opposition cultural organization that helped lay the foundation in the late Soviet era for a movement calling for the independence of Belarus.
After the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and the election in 1994 of Belarus’ authoritarian leader, President Alexander G. Lukashenko, Mr. Bialiatsky helped found and lead the Viasna, or Spring, rights group, nearly all of its members now living in prison or living in exile. abroad.
He served for a time as director of the Museum Honoring Maxim Bahdanovich, a poet considered to be the founder of modern Belarusian literature, but was forced out of that position when Mr. Lukashenko, now president for 28 years, began cracking down on the Belarusian language and promoting Russian.
Andrei Sannikov, a longtime friend of Mr Bialiatsky and an opponent of Mr Lukashenko, hailed the Nobel Peace Prize as a “very important” boost “for all of us who fight for human rights and human dignity” in Belarus, reminding the West that it needs to put more pressure on Mr Lukashenko to release What Mr. Sannikov said about more than 4,000 political prisoners.
“I hope this sends a strong signal to both Lukashenko and his prison guards that the world is watching the perpetrators and will surely punish them,” Mr. Sannikov, now living in exile in Poland, said in an interview.
He added that Mr Bialiatsky “has been at the forefront of human rights advocates for decades”.
When Mr. Sannikov, a former deputy foreign minister who resigned in 1996 in protest of Mr. Lukashenko’s increasingly repressive policies, was tried in 2011 for his participation in peaceful protests, Mr. Bialiatsky testified on his behalf – and was arrested shortly thereafter. Mr. Bialiatsky was tried on trumped-up charges of tax evasion, and was sentenced to four and a half years in prison. He was pardoned in 2014.
The 2011 charges related to money he received from abroad to help finance the Viasna rights group, of which he was head, and were based in part on confidential banking information that Lithuania and Poland provided to prosecutors in Belarus. Mr. Sannikov said the case showed how European authorities had at times been complicit in helping Mr. Lukashenko entrench his increasingly authoritarian regime.
He said Europe and the West in general “do not pay enough attention to human rights in Belarus,” describing conditions in Belarusian prisons as “absolutely appalling,” including the frequent use of torture and other abuses.
Natalia Satsunkevich, a Vyasna activist now living in exile, told Dozhd, a Russian online television channel that has been shut down in Russia and now operates from abroad, that Mr Bialyatsky is being held in “inhumane conditions” in a dilapidated prison inside the 200-year-old Minsk castle.
She said awarding him the Peace Prize, along with winners from Ukraine and Russia, was “very symbolic” and highlighted “how closely these countries are now connected to the war,” despite the notion It received criticism from some in Ukraine Friday.
Mr. Bialyatsky’s wife said that she and her husband, in their letters to each other, did not discuss his treatment in prison or the criminal case against him, and only wrote “carefully”. She said visits and phone calls are prohibited.
She added that the Nobel Peace Prize was a “complete surprise”. She said she received a phone call, apparently from the award committee in Oslo, early Friday but could not hear what was being said because she was outside on a noisy street.
Noting a torrent of missed calls on her mobile, she finally learned her husband had been chosen for the award when she called a friend who was trying to reach her.
“I didn’t even consider that possible,” Ms Pinchuk said, adding that she had sent a telegram to her imprisoned husband but had received no response.
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