Take Action for Nobel Laureate Ales Bialiatski on International Mother Language Day
International Mother Language Day, held every year on February 21, is observed to promote linguistic and cultural diversity, and multilingualism. Today is also the launch of the Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee’s 2023 video-poem marathon, which runs from February 21 to March 21.
To mark this anniversary, PEN International features the case of Belarusian writer, human rights defender, Nobel Peace Prize winner and PEN Belarus member Ales Bialiatski, detained since 2021 and currently on trial.
This case is emblematic of the type of threats and attacks writers and journalists around the world are often subjected to, for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression. It is also emblematic of the type of oppression experienced by writers and journalists who are prevented from expressing themselves in their indigenous or minoritised language.
Respect for all languages and cultures is fundamental to the process of constructing and maintaining dialogue and peace in the world. PEN International’s Girona Manifesto for Linguistic Rights, 2011
Take action today to free Ales Bialiatski
Ales Bialiatski (Belarus)
Ales Bialiatski is a writer, PEN Belarus member, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and the founder of the Viasna Human Rights Centre (Viasna), an organisation that campaigns for opposition activists who are harassed and persecuted by the Belarusian authorities.
Bialiatski is currently on trial in Minsk. He faces up to 12 years in prison in relation to his human rights work and his writings that are critical of the Belarusian authorities. The verdict against him will be announced on March 3, 2023.
In March 2021, the Belarusian Investigative Committee opened a case against Viasna as part of a broader crackdown on independent media and civil society organisations. Bialiatski was summoned for questioning the following month. On July 14, 2021, he was detained alongside several Viasna colleagues following raids by Belarusian law enforcement officers on more than a dozen civil society and human rights organizations. He was placed in pretrial detention three days later on trumped up charges of tax evasion.
Bialiatski’s trial opened at the Lieninski District Court of Minsk on January 9, 2023. He is being tried alongside two colleagues from Viasna – Board Member Valiantsin Stefanovich and lawyer Uladzimir Labkovich. All stand accused of smuggling (Article 228.4 of the Belarusian Criminal Code) and organizing and financing actions that grossly violate public order (Article 342.2 of the Belarusian Criminal Code). Throughout the trial, Bialiatski repeatedly asked that the prosecutor and the court conduct the trial in Belarusian, to no avail. According to Viasna, Bialiatski notably said:
‘The situation with the language used in court appears to be extraordinary: the prosecution and the court refused steadfast to speak Belarusian, despite the fact that I, as the accused, am a Belarusian-speaking person in life. I speak, write, and think in Belarusian. I remind you that the Belarusian language is a state language, and you, as state officials, should know two state languages, including Belarusian, and not struggle to say two words. Therefore, you are obliged to speak, accordingly, in Belarusian with Belarusian-speaking citizens. For example, as provided for by the Law ‘On Appeals of Citizens’, if you write in Belarusian, any official department will respond to you in Belarusian. This put me in an unequal position with the prosecution. I was not given the opportunity to explain my position thoroughly and in detail, to dispute the unjust and senseless accusation”.
It is not the first time Bialiatski has been targeted by the Belarusian authorities. On August 4, 2011, he was arrested on spurious charges of tax evasion, for solely using his personal bank accounts in Lithuania and Poland to fund Viasna, as the organization is not allowed to hold a bank account in Belarus. On November 24, 2011, he was sentenced to four-and-a-half years imprisonment in a high security prison colony. PEN members actively campaigned for his release; he was amnestied in June 2014.
Bialiatski is the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize 2022, alongside the Russian human rights organisation Memorial, and the Ukrainian human rights organisation Center for Civil Liberties – a fitting tribute to their fearless work.
Crackdown against the Belarusian language and literature
The stigmatisation and repression of the Belarusian language and literature in Belarus, where the authorities have been seeking to assert the dominance of the Russian language for decades, have worsened since the Russian Federation launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. Scores of independent publishing houses have been raided for promoting books by Belarusian writers and in Belarusian language, and their activities suspended under far-fetched pretences. PEN Belarus documented 998 cultural and human rights violations against cultural figures between January and September 2022 alone.
PEN International has long supported PEN Belarus in promoting the Belarusian language, including through a 2019 resolution calling on the Belarusian authorities to:
- Comply with Article 17 of the Constitution of Belarus, which enshrines Belarusian as an official language;
- Respect, protect and fulfil the right of all those who speak Belarusian to express themselves in that language and to have their literature promoted and distributed;
- Ensure that those wishing to study in Belarusian-language classes, including at the higher education level, are provided with such opportunities;
- Take effective measures to promote the wider use of the Belarusian language in all areas of life, including cultural life.
For more information on the restrictions to freedom of expression in Belarus, click here.
PEN International calls for Ales Bialiatski’s immediate and unconditional release, and for all charges against him to be dropped. This is what you can do:
Write to the Belarusian authorities, calling on them to:
- Release Ales Bialiatski immediately and unconditionally, and drop all charges against him;
- Pending his release, ensure that he is provided with regular communication with his family, lawyers and adequate health care;
- Abide by their international human rights obligations and uphold the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly for all.
Send appeals to:
- Andrei Shved, Prosecutor General of the Republic of Belarus
Address: Vul. Internatsianalnaya 22, 220030 Minsk, Belarus
- Send copies to the Embassy of Belarus in your own country. Embassy addresses may be found here: https://mfa.gov.by/en/bilateral/belarus/?asd50
- Ministry of Foreign Affairs in your country
- Diplomatic representatives in Belarus
Please send messages of solidarity to:
Ales Bialiatski (Аляксандру Віктаравічу Бяляцкаму)
SIZO-1, vulica Valadarskaha 2
220030, Minsk, Belarus
Please find a sample message below:
Dear Ales, we look forward to the day you will be released. We keep standing by you and campaigning for your freedom. Solidarity
Дорогой Алесь, мы з нецярпеннем чакаем таго дня, калі Вы будзеце вызвалены. Мы працягваем вас падтрымліваць і змагацца за вашу свабоду. Прыміце нашу падтрымку
The prison administration is more likely to accept messages if written in Russian:
Дорогой Алесь, мы с нетерпением ждем того дня, когда Вы будете освобождены. Мы продолжаем поддерживать Вас и бороться за Вашу свободу. Примите нашу поддержку
PEN members are encouraged to:
- Publish articles and opinion pieces in your national or local press highlighting the case of Ales Bialiatski and the state of freedom of expression in Belarus;
- Share information about Ales Bialiatski and your campaigning activities via social media. Please use #AlesBialiatski and #FreeViasna.
- Visit PEN International handles on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram for retweets, likes, comments and sharing our posts for wider outreach.
Please keep us informed of your activities.
Note to editors:
- For further information, please contact Aurélia Dondo, PEN International Head of Europe and Central Asia Programme, Aurelia.firstname.lastname@example.org and Sabrina Tucci, PEN International Communications and Campaigns Manager, Sabrina.Tucci@pen-international.org |Twitter: @pen_int | Facebook: www.facebook.com/peninternational | www.pen-international.org