March 21, 2023

Belarusian human rights activist, head of the human rights center “Viasna” Ales Bialiatski was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2022, already in prison. The prize in Oslo was received by his wife. Natalia Pinchuk delivered a powerful and touching speech about for which Bialiatsky worked for almost three decades– about freedom, democracy and human rights in Belarus. Three months later, on March 3, 2023, the 60-year-old human rights activist received 10 years in prison, his colleagues at the Viasna human rights center Valentin Stefanovich – 9 years, and Vladimir Labkovich – 7 years.

They were accused of “smuggling” money for human rights activities and “funding protests.” Bialiatski and his colleagues at the human rights center Viasna provided support to detainees during protests against the rigged 2020 presidential election. The international and human rights community called the trial politically motivated and the sentences “an insult to justice.”

DW spoke with Natalia Pinchuk about her husband’s sentence, the Nobel Prize, the war, repressions, her current life and hope.

DW: How do you personally feel about what’s going on?

Natalia Pinchuk: I took the verdict hard – I realize what conditions is Ales in and other political prisoners. The experience of the first arrest of Ales (the human rights activist was given 4.5 years in prison in 2011, he served 3 years, Lukashenko was released under pressure from the West. – Red.) exacerbates the situation. You know what’s behind it.

Ales Byalyatsky and Natalia Pinchuk (June 2014)
Ales Byalyatsky and Natalia Pinchuk (June 2014) Photo: Dmitry Brushko/AP Photo/picture alliance

10 years is a huge time. In Belarus, those who opposed the authorities are given up to 25 years… For some people, this is a term until the end of their lives, given their age and unbearable conditions in prisons. A term of 10 years is aimed at undermining the health and destruction of a person, it is impossible to perceive it calmly.

– Do you think the Nobel Prize influenced the verdict?

open process – most likely, the answer to the award, the desire to show that it means nothing to the authorities, to challenge the West. The authorities tried to make the human rights defenders look like criminals, to show the sentence not as politically motivated, but to tie them to smuggling… They failed.

– Has the award changed anything in relation to Belarus?

– The main thing is that the award drew attention to what terrible things are happening in Belarus. Daily terror, repressions that have not ended since 2020, hundreds of people are imprisoned, every day – detentions. One and a half thousand political prisoners is a minuscule compared to the real number, we do not know about many of them.

“I have to build my life somehow. I’m not in Belarus yet”

– Can you tell us about how you live now?

Photo from the family archive of Ales Byalyatsky and Natalia Pinchuk
Photo from the family archive of Ales Byalyatsky and Natalia Pinchuk Photo: private

– Now there are no hopes for the release of Ales and his colleagues from Vesna. Wives, including me, have to somehow improve their lives. We lived with Ales for 35 years, it’s hard not to have him around. I am not in Belarus yet, for what period of time – it is difficult to say. For now, this is the situation.

– What helps to cope?

– When Ales was first arrested, I made new friends, although, unfortunately, their sons and husbands were imprisoned. We did not lose touch, and when the time of testing came again, we became even closer. This is the mother of Igor Olinevich, the wife of Mikalai Statkevich… I am immensely grateful to them.

– You name names, and I understand that now all of them are political prisoners again. In 2021, anarchist Igor Olinevich received 20 years in prison, politician Mikalai Statkevich – 14 years…

– Yes, both sons and husbands are in prison again.

– How to build a life in this case? What to hope for?

– Poor hope, we always strangle her. It’s hard if she doesn’t make excuses. We try to live one day, not to think about the good, let it come by itself.

– Do you have information about your husband?

– There is correspondence, but not all of his letters come to me, and mine – to him. Lawyers are silent because they may lose their license or go to jail. One of Ales’ lawyers has already received a long sentence, the other was deprived of his license.

“The award will wait for Ales’ release from prison”

– On behalf of your husband, you received a Nobel medal. Also part of the award is money, a third of 900 thousand euros. Where is the medal now and what about the money?

– Yes, I symbolically accepted a medal and a diploma, they are still kept by friends. As for the monetary part, it is not accepted. Only Ales can accept it when he comes out of prison. The prize will be waiting for him to be released.

– Do you have contact with other award winners – the Russian “Memorial”, the Center for Civil Liberties from Ukraine?

Ales Bialiatsky in the courtroom
Ales Bialiatsky in the courtroomPhoto: Vitaly Pivovarchik/BELTA/AFP/Getty Images

– There is no direct contact, but Ales’ support is felt, especially by the Ukrainian side, I am very grateful to them. The fact that Belarus is considered a co-aggressor country worsens the position of the Belarusians, although in this situation the Belarusians as a people are guilty without guilt. For the most part, they support the Ukrainians, this must be remembered. Belarusians are not Russians, they do not have imperial ambitions, they do not need a war. It is necessary to separate the position of the authorities and who the people are for. On February 24, the Ukrainian flag was hoisted in Minsk. Under current laws, people risked their lives to show support for Ukraine.

“The whole of Belarus, in fact, is in prison. People need support”

– In 2020-2021, Belarus was talked about a lot, but against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine, it faded into the background. Did you have this feeling?

– Yes, it was noticeable that Belarus went out of focus. I felt this forgetfulness. Before the Nobel Prize, the attention of the world was directed in a different direction… The award brought Belarus back into focus. It is important that the world understands that Belarusians are ready to fight for their views, but now the whole of Belarus, in fact, is in prison.

– What would you now expect from the international community, European politicians?

– To express solidarity in concrete actions. People in prison are a blow to their families, they need help to support their relatives in prisons and themselves. Many are forced to emigrate, they need help at least until they find a job.

“Purges” are taking place in Belarus, everyone who is considered disloyal to the authorities is expelled from work. It’s almost impossible to get someone else. I see this as an opportunity for the EU to support people, to give them the opportunity to survive.

– What about political prisoners? Previously, people were released in exchange, for example, for the easing of sanctions. Now some relatives and political prisoners themselves are for it, others are against it.

– I think it is not always possible to voice those steps that could facilitate the release of political prisoners. Sometimes the work is done better in silence… It is hoped that EU politicians will be able to find opportunities to take steps that will help.

See also:

Human rights activist Ales Bialiatski wins Nobel Peace Prize

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