Nobel Prize Is No Defense Against Jail for Ales Bialiatski in Belarus

Unsettled by the war in neighboring Ukraine and the increasing militancy of some opposition groups, Belarus on Friday sentenced Ales Bialiatski — a veteran human rights activist who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October — to 10 years in prison, according to Viasna, the group that he helped found.

Mr. Bialiatski, 60, has been a pillar of the human rights movement in Eastern Europe since the late 1980s, when Belarus was part of the Soviet Union. He continued in that role after President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, the country’s veteran strongman leader, took power in 1994, revived Soviet-era repression and turned his nation into a Russian satellite state.

Mr. Lukashenko, who allowed Belarus to serve as a staging ground for Russia’s abortive attack on the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, last February, has been under intense pressure from Moscow in recent months to take a more direct role in the war. He has also been unnerved by militant opposition activists in exile, some of whom have joined Ukrainian forces fighting to repel Russia and have threatened to take the fight into Belarus.

An exiled opposition group last week claimed responsibility for an attack on a Russian surveillance aircraft based at a Belarusian military airfield east of Minsk, the capital. Most experts believe the attack was carried out by Ukraine but the incident caused alarm in the Belarusian leadership over potential threats to its tight grip on power.

Andrei Sannikov, an old friend of Mr. Bialiatski and a fellow Belarusian human rights activist, said the sentence handed down Friday against a Nobel laureate was part of a drive by authorities to show they will brook no dissent.

“Lukashenko is sending a message: that he is still in control, will not tolerate any disloyalty — and there is nothing you can do about it,” said Mr. Sannikov, a former presidential candidate who now lives in exile in Poland. Friday’s sentencing, he added, was “predictable” but still shattered hopes that the Nobel Peace Prize might “give some protection from Lukashenko.”

A court in Myanmar last year sentenced the country’s ousted civilian leader, the Nobel laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, to seven years in prison, on top of an earlier sentence of 26 years. But it is rare for a Nobel Prize winner to be jailed after receiving the prize. Others like the Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo were sent to prison before receiving the award. Mr. Lukashenko returned from China this week, after a three-day trip during which he lavished praise on Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader and a staunch ally of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

The Belarusian president, an erratic, eccentric and brutal leader, tried for a time to maneuver between Russia, his overbearing neighbor to the east, and the West. But he abandoned those efforts after nationwide protests against a rigged 2020 presidential election in which Mr. Lukashenko claimed an implausible landslide victory, his sixth in a row.

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last February further tightened the Kremlin’s grip on Belarus, now almost entirely beholden to Moscow for money, energy supplies and security assistance. Aided by Russian security personnel, Belarus’s sprawling security apparatus has largely silenced voices of dissent inside the country but it increasingly worries about exiled groups like the Kalinouski battalion, a volunteer force of armed Belarusians helping Ukraine.

Most members of Viasna, the peaceful group founded by Mr. Bialiatski, are now in prison in Belarus or living abroad. “There are arrests and trials happening every day in Belarus,” said Mr. Bialiatski’s wife, Natalia Pinchuk, who fled abroad to avoid arrest. “They are sending a signal that nobody whom they find inconvenient is safe.”

Mr. Bialiatski has been in detention since his arrest in July 2021 as part of a sweeping and brutal crackdown on dissent that unfolded across Belarus after huge street protests erupted in 2020.

Viasna said on Friday that the charges against him were “financing of group actions grossly violating the public order” and “smuggling by an organized group.”

He has denied the accusations against him, and rights groups have denounced them as fraudulent. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights condemned his arrest as “simply politically motivated.”

Ms. Pinchuk said in a telephone interview that her husband would appeal his conviction but added that there “is no hope they will change his sentence” because Belarusian courts “don’t look at evidence” and only obey orders.

“The main purpose” of the sentence handed down against her husband, she said, “is to frighten people inside country and to tell the international community that it can’t do anything — that democratic values don’t matter at all” to Mr. Lukashenko.

Two other members of Viasna, Valiantsin Stefanovich and Uladzimir Labkovich, were also sentenced to prison on Friday, the group said. A video from the proceedings showed the three men, dressed in black, calmly seated inside a defendants’ cage inside the courtroom.

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, an opposition presidential candidate who fled to Lithuania in 2020, called the sentencing “appalling.”

“Ten years for a @NobelPrize laureate shows clearly what Lukashenka’s regime is,” she said on Twitter, referring to Mr. Lukashenko. “We won’t stop fighting for our heroes.”

In a separate message Friday on Telegram, a messaging service, Ms. Tikhanovskaya said her husband, Sergei, jailed in Belarus for 18 years in 2021 on charges of organizing mass unrest and inciting hatred, had been moved without explanation from a penal colony, where inmates live in barracks, to a stricter “prison regime” for three years.

Efforts to stifle dissent since the postelection protests in 2020 have ground on relentlessly, including the arrest of an opposition journalist in 2021 after the Belarusian authorities forced a commercial plane on which he was a passenger to land in Minsk, the capital.

Mr. Lukashenko repaid the Kremlin for its support in helping crush the protests by allowing Russian forces to assemble in Belarus early last year under the pretext of training exercises and then thrust toward Kyiv at the start of Mr. Putin’s full-scale invasion.

Viasna has been a leading rights organization in the country, documenting violations and supporting political prisoners since its founding in 1996. Before that, Mr. Bialiatski was an advocate for democracy and Belarusian independence, organizing anti-Soviet protests in the 1980s. He was in prison from 2011 to 2014 on a charge of tax evasion.

On Friday, the Twitter account for the Nobel Prize repeated a 2022 quote from Mr. Bialiatski: “It just so happens that people who value freedom the most are often deprived of it.”

Daniel Victor contributed reporting from London.

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