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Nobel Peace Prize 2022: The Lifelong Fight Of Belarusian Rights Icon Ales Byalyatski

Ales Byalyatski receives the 2020 Right Livelihood Award at the digital award ceremony in Stockholm on December 3, 2020.
Ales Byalyatski receives the 2020 Right Livelihood Award at the digital award ceremony in Stockholm on December 3, 2020.

Sixty-year-old Belarusian Ales Byalyatski has been fighting for democracy and human rights in his beleaguered homeland his entire life.

On October 7, after having been nominated for the prestigious prize at least five times, Byalyatski's life's work was honored with a Nobel Peace Prize, which he shared with the Ukrainian human rights organization Center for Civil Liberties and the embattled Russian group Memorial.

Byalyatski "is a living legend of the Belarusian fight for freedom," wrote opposition politician Franak Vyachorka, an adviser to opposition leader Syatlana Tsikanouskaya, in a post on Twitter. "He was jailed and beaten multiple times, but he got up and continued his struggle every time."

Valer Kavaleuski, another Belarusian opposition politician, described Byalyatski as "the soul and conscience of the Belarusian nation, who [has] devoted [his] life to defending rights and freedoms far beyond national borders."

WATCH: Speaking to RFE/RL's Belarus Service in Paris on October 7, Tsikhanouskaya said the award would "draw attention to the issue of political prisoners and torture in prisons" in Belarus.

Tsikhanouskaya: Nobel Peace Prize Will 'Draw Attention To The Issue Of Political Prisoners' In Belarus
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As news of the honor came, Byalyatski himself was in pretrial detention facing tax-evasion charges that his supporters dismiss as politically motivated retribution on the part of the government of longtime Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

He has been held without trial for 15 months and, if convicted, could face up to seven years in prison.

On September 25, he marked his 60th birthday behind bars.

Political Prisoner

Byalyatski, a literary scholar by training, began his activism during his student days in the early 1980s. Years before the collapse of the Soviet Union, he was among those advocating an independent, democratic Belarus.

He served on the Minsk City Council of Deputies between 1991 and 1996. During the Soviet attempted coup against Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991, Byalyatski and other city council members issued an open appeal urging the people of Minsk to "seek all constitutional means" to resist the KGB-linked usurpers.

On September 5, 1991, Byalyatski brought to the city council chamber the first white-red-white flag of the short-lived Belarusian democratic republic of 1918 -- a now-outlawed democratic symbol that has been adopted by the anti-Lukashenka opposition.

The banner that he brought was later flown over the building during the early, optimistic years of independence.

In 1996, he founded the Vyasna Human Rights Center, which was originally a Minsk-based organization with the name Vyasna-96. In 1999, it was reborn as a national nongovernmental rights organization.

The NGO was outlawed by the Belarusian Supreme Court in October 2003 for its role monitoring the country's 2001 presidential election. It has continued its work, however, as an unregistered NGO.

The main work of the organization has been defending and supporting political prisoners. The group -- and Byalyatski personally -- has regularly been harassed and persecuted by Lukashenka's government since its founding.

In 2011, Byalyatski was sentenced to 4 1/2 years in prison on tax-evasion charges that he rejected as politically motivated.

European Union governments and the United States criticized the prosecution and labeled him a political prisoner. International rights groups and United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights Situation in Belarus Miklos Haraszti called for his release.

Byalyatski's conviction "is a disgraceful example of abusing the courts for political ends," Hugh Williamson of Human Rights Watch said at the time. "The trial had next to nothing to do with tax evasion and everything to do with the Belarusian government trying to silence someone who for many years dared to help victims of abuse."

He was released from prison on June 21, 2014, and immediately resumed his activism.

In an interview with RFE/RL in 2016, Byalyatski said Lukashenka -- who has ruled Belarus since 1994 -- was "at his very core a post-Soviet dictator" who feels "at home in the dictators' club" with Russian President Vladimir Putin and "all those Central Asian tsars."

"European democratic society is completely alien to him," Byalyatski said. "For someone who has spent 22 years watching the outside world through the glass of his presidential limousine, it is probably hard for him to understand what democracy is really all about."

'My Hero'

The disputed 2020 presidential election, which was used to give Lukashenka a sixth term as president and which the opposition and international monitors have rejected as fraudulent, set off a massive wave of protests across Belarus and a monthslong standoff between pro-democracy activists and the authoritarian government.

Vyasna played a prominent role documenting the Lukashenka government's often-brutal crackdown against demonstrators and providing aid to imprisoned citizens and activists. Many of the group's members were raided and arrested.

In July 2021, Byalyatski was arrested again and, in October 2021, was again charged with tax evasion. He has been in pretrial custody for well over a year.

In all, Byalyatski has been prosecuted more than 20 times for his activism.

“Byalyatski has the magic of teaching people around him not to react emotionally to problems,” said Vyasna activist Ales Burlakov. “When something happens, he very calmly and soberly assesses what needs to be done.”

Belarusian rights activist Dziyana Pinchuk told RFE/RL's Belarus Service that she learned the “fundamentals of human rights” from Byalyatski.

“That is why now when I feel hopelessness and despair and can’t see the light, I always remember Ales,” she said.

In another Twitter post, Vyachorka called Byalyatski “my hero,” writing that the activist had helped him “the first time I went to jail,” at age 18.

Well Decorated

The 2022 Nobel Peace Prize is far from the first major international honor to be bestowed on Byalyatski.

In 2006, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee awarded him the Andrei Sakharov Freedom Award.

In 2012, he was awarded the Human Rights Defenders Award by the U.S. State Department.

Poland honored him with the Lech Walesa Award in 2012, the same year that he won the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe’s Vaclav Havel Human Rights Award.

In 2020, he was named among many Belarusian opposition activists in the citation of the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize.

The same year, he was awarded the Right Livelihood Award, sometimes called the “alternative Nobel,” by Sweden’s Right Livelihood Foundation.

With reporting by RFE/RL’s Belarus and Ukrainian services