Belarus: Nobel Peace laureate sentenced to prison

PEN Canada press release

On March 3, 2023, a court in Minsk sentenced writer, Nobel Peace Prize winner and PEN Belarus member Ales Bialiatski to 10 years in prison on trumped up charges of smuggling, and organizing and financing actions that grossly violate public order. Bialiatski was tried alongside two colleagues from the Viasna Human Rights Centre (Viasna) – Board Member Valiantsin Stefanovich and lawyer Uladzimir Labkovich – who were sentenced to nine years and seven years in prison, respectively. A fourth member of Viasna, Zmister Salauyou, was tried in absentia and sentenced to eight years in prison.

Responding to the news, Germán Rojas, Chair of PEN International’s Writers for Peace Committee, said:

‘PEN International is appalled at the sentencing of Nobel Peace Prize 2022 winner Ales Bialiatski to 10 years in prison. Bialiatski has devoted his life to the promotion of democracy and human rights in Belarus. In December, he was barred from delivering his speech to the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, where he was hailed as a beacon of light for the region, and beyond. Bialiatski is a symbol of hope, an inspiration to human rights defenders around the world, and should be celebrated as such. We call for his immediate and unconditional release, and for his sentencing and conviction to be overturned.’

Ma Thida, Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee, said:

‘The targeting of Ales Bialiatski and members of Viasna is part of larger crackdown unleashed by the Belarusian authorities against civil society and independent voices in Belarus, which broke out in 2020 and still shows no sign of abating. The Belarusian authorities seem determined to crush all dissent. All those held in Belarus for peacefully expressing their views, including Bialiatski and his Viasna colleagues, as well as philosopher and PEN Belarus member Uladzimir Mackievič and writer and journalist Andrzej Poczobut, must be released at once.’

Taciana Niadbaj, PEN Belarus President, said:

‘Human rights defender and writer Ales Bialiatski embodies the entire civil society of Belarus today, which does not want to put up with injustice, human rights violations, and the destruction of Belarusian culture. At the epicentre of everything, he has always been in the face of fateful events for the country and society. Twice in his life he consciously chose not to leave but to stay – with his people, in his country. Ales Bialiatski’s personal history is a chronicle of the country: the milestones of his personal life are closely intertwined with the stages of forming the new Belarus we have in our dreams. 

The unfair and politically motivated sentence against Bialiatski – who dedicated his whole life to Belarusian culture and human rights – proves that the anti-Belarusian and anti-people regime takes revenge on invincible citizens for their unshakable stance against dictatorship, violence and lies.’

Additional information

Ales Bialiatski, born on September 25, 1962, is a literary scholar, essayist, and human rights defender. He is the founder of Viasna, an organisation that campaigns for opposition activists who are harassed and persecuted by the Belarusian authorities. In March 2021, the Belarusian Investigative Committee opened a case against Viasna under Article 342 of the Criminal Code (organizing and financing actions that grossly violate public order), as part of a broader crackdown on independent media and civil society organisations. As Chairman of Viasna, Bialiatski was summoned for questioning to the central office of the Investigative Committee on April 7, 2021. He demanded a protocol of interrogation in Belarusian, which took several days to produce.

On July 14,  2021, Ales Bialiatski was detained alongside several Viasna colleagues following raids by Belarusian law enforcement officers on more than a dozen civil society and human rights organisations. Bialiatski was transferred to pretrial detention on July 17 on trumped-up charges of tax evasion. He was subsequently charged with 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).  In December, 2022 Bialiatski was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize alongside the Russian human rights organization Memorial, and the Ukrainian human rights organization Center for Civil Liberties – a fitting tribute to their fearless work. His trial opened at the Lieninski District Court of Minsk on January 9, 2023. Throughout the trial, Bialiatski repeatedly asked that the prosecutor and the court conduct the trial in Belarusian, to no avail.

It is not the first time Bialiatski has been targeted by the Belarusian authorities. On August 4, 2011, he was arrested again on spurious charges of tax evasion – he used his personal bank accounts in Lithuania and Poland to fund Viasna, as the organisation could not hold a bank account in Belarus. On November 24, 2011, Bialiatski 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.

 The crisis in Belarus that broke out in 2020 shows no signs of abating, as the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly remain under sustained onslaught. The Belarusian authorities have responded with brutality and repression against critics and moved to ‘purge’ civil society, notably dissolving PEN Belarus in August 2021. 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 1390 cultural and human rights violations against cultural figures in 2022 alone. Six members of Viasna are currently behind bars.

 For more information about the work of PEN Belarus – including their latest reports and monitoring findings – please click here.