Ales Bialiatski is a human rights activist in Belarus, leading an almost 30-year campaign for democracy and freedom. In 1996, he founded the Minsk-based Human Rights Center “Viasna” to provide support for political prisoners. It has since become the country’s leading non-governmental organisation contributing to the development of the civil society in Belarus through documenting human rights abuses and monitoring elections.
Belarus, under the rule of President Alexander Lukashenko, is often referred to as “Europe’s last dictatorship”. This reputation rightly stems from his authoritarian rule in which elections are rigged, opposition voices are silenced, and civil society is severely restricted by state institutions which are, in effect, a continuation of the country’s Soviet past. The country is also unique on the continent for its continued use of the death penalty.
Since the mid-1980s, Bialiatski has led a nonviolent and nonpartisan campaign to ensure that democratic freedoms and a vibrant civil society are established in Belarus. As part of this work, Bialiatski has campaigned to end the death penalty. As an active member of the national human rights movement, Bialiatski has been arrested and spent several years in prison on trumped-up charges, as Belarusian authorities tried to impede him. The government has also frequently targeted Viasna and its members.
However, Bialiatski and Viasna’s persistent and long-standing efforts to empower the people of Belarus and ensure their democratic rights have rendered them an unstoppable force for freedom. During pro-democracy protests, including the recent large-scale demonstrations in the aftermath of the 2020 fraudulent presidential elections, Viasna has been playing a leading role in advocating for the freedom of assembly, defending the rights of people arrested for protesting and documenting human rights abuses. Bialiatski is also a member of the Coordination Council, which was set up in August 2020 by opposition and civil society figures with the aim of facilitating a peaceful transfer of power in the country.
Bialiatski and Viasna continue to stand for the multitude of courageous people protesting Lukashenko’s dictatorial reign at high personal risk. Through their commitment to democracy and freedom, Bialiatski and Viasna have laid the foundations of a peaceful and democratic society in Belarus.
Place of Birth: Karelia, Russia
Date of Birth: September 25, 1962
Education: Graduated in 1984 from the History and Philology Faculty at Homiel State University. In 1989, he received PhD from the Literature Institute of the Academy of Sciences in Minsk.
Human Rights Center “Viasna”
Based in: Minsk, with regional offices in a majority of Belarusian cities
Outspoken Advocate for Freedom and Human Rights
Since the mid-1980s, Ales Bialiatski has been at the forefront of advocating for democratic freedoms in the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, and subsequently independent Belarus. In 1988, he co-organised a series of public actions against Stalinism and to commemorate the victims of Soviet political repression, for which he was arrested and punished by administrative fines. He was active as a founding member of the Organising Committee of the Belarusian Popular Front (BPF), a political and social movement that advocated for democracy after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He was BPF’s Vice-Chairman from 1999 to 2001.
In 1996, during mass protests of the democratic opposition in Belarus, Bialiatski co-founded the Human Rights Center “Viasna” and has been its chairperson ever since. Viasna’s original purpose was to assist the detained protestors and their families. It has since grown into a national non-governmental organisation with its central office in Minsk and regional organisations, with around 200 members, in the majority of Belarusian cities.
Since the founding of Viasna, the organisation has worked towards the main goal of contributing to the development of civil society in Belarus, based on respect for human rights. The organisation seeks to achieve this end through a variety of actions, including researching and monitoring the development of civil society and the human rights situation in Belarus; election monitoring; and assisting the implementation of international human rights treaties ratified by Belarus.
Repression in “Europe’s Last Dictatorship”
Belarus, under the rule of President Alexander Lukashenko, is often referred to as “Europe’s last dictatorship.” This reputation rightly stems from his authoritarian rule in which elections are rigged, opposition voices are silenced, and civil society is severely restricted by state institutions which are, in effect, a continuation of the country’s Soviet past.
Since its inception, Viasna has been relentlessly persecuted by the Belarusian authorities, which has seen its members subjected to repeated arrests, detention, beatings, raids and fines. On October 28, 2003, the Belarusian Supreme Court baselessly cancelled the registration of Viasna for its participation in the observation of the 2001 presidential election. In 2006, the UN Human Rights Committee declared that the dissolution of Viasna was illegal and recommended the Belarusian authorities to re-register the organisation. However, the decision was ignored by the government of Belarus. The organisation has continued its work regardless.
As a result of his activities in support of democratic action, Bialiatski has also been targeted by the Belarusian authorities, having been arrested more than 25 times, subjected to fines and administrative penalties.
In 2011, he was arrested on trumped-up charges of tax evasion and subsequently sentenced to 4.5 years in prison. Independent observers and international organisations roundly condemned the trial and sentencing as politically motivated in retaliation for his human rights work. His time in prison was characterised by severe restrictions, lengthy periods of solitary confinement and being denied social contacts. Bialiatski was eventually released in June 2014, after spending 1,052 days in prison. Then-UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Belarus Miklós Haraszti described Bialiatski’s detention as “a symbol of the repression against human rights defenders.”
Despite enduring such inhumane treatment, Bialiatski never ceased in his dedication to promoting democratic principles and human rights in Belarus. Upon his release, he once again returned to lead Viasna and has since played a leading role in Belarusian civil society during one of the most tumultuous times in its recent history. During his imprisonment, national and international civil society groups dedicated August 4 as the International Day of Solidarity with Civil Society of Belarus to commemorate the date of Bialiatski’s arrest.
Paving the Way to Democracy
In a country with such a restrictive space for civil society, concrete results can be hard to come by. Even still, Viasna has been able to distinguish itself as the leading voice for human rights and democratic freedoms in the country. Their consistent reporting and documentation, coupled with their visibility in independent media, have brought the issue of human rights violations to the wider Belarusian public. This shift in public awareness has been observed in the increasing number of popular demonstrations occurring in the country over the last decade. The regime’s shift from a form of “soft repression” towards violent crackdowns has also been thoroughly documented by Viasna, notably through their exhaustive list of political prisoners in the country.
Together, Bialiatski and Viasna have played a fundamental role in supporting and bolstering civil society in the country, working closely with local NGOs as well as international groups.
One of the organisation’s lasting achievements has been its successful lobbying at the UN Human Rights Council, which led to the creation of a Special Rapporteur on human rights in Belarus in 2012. As a result, human rights abuses documented by Viasna have been raised at the highest international fora, and Belarus’s compliance with international standards can be scrutinised. As Belarus is not party to the European Convention on Human Rights, UN mechanisms remain the only international organ in which judicial assessments of the country’s human rights record can be carried out.
Viasna has also been a strong opponent of the death penalty in Belarus, the last European country to carry out the punishment. Sociological surveys have shown public opinion on its use has been shifting towards abolishment and it has now become a regular feature of discussions on the human rights situation between Belarusian officials and their European counterparts. Viasna engages with European countries and international organisations in providing monitoring on the ground and conducting international advocacy at the UN. They have also engaged with state authorities on the matter to defend those sentenced to death, presenting arguments and exchanging information with government agencies on the issue of the death penalty.
For over a decade, Bialiatski and Viasna have also been independently monitoring elections in the country, when often no external monitors are permitted. During the 2020 election, Viasna was a leading member of the monitoring group “Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections.”
The 2020 President Election and Subsequent Demonstrations
The country’s fraudulent 2020 presidential election, subsequent nationwide protests and strikes, and the regime’s crackdown on peaceful protesters have shone a light internationally on the dictatorial practices of the Belarusian state. Thousands of protestors have been detained, and Viasna has documented the widespread use of torture by the authorities.
Following the 2020 presidential election, Bialiatski became a member of the Coordination Council, established by opposition members and encompassing civil society figures and other prominent Belarusian individuals. The Council has been the primary domestic force in denouncing the crackdown on peaceful protestors and calling for the respect of international standards for free and fair elections.
While the outcome of the 2020 demonstrations remain to be seen, it is clear that Bialiatski and Viasna have helped lay the foundations of a peaceful and democratic society in Belarus.