By Andrius Sytas
VILNIUS (Reuters) – Nobel Peace Prize winner Ales Byalyatski chose to return to his native Belarus despite warnings he faced jail there in order to help civil society by distributing international aid donations, a friend of the human rights activist said.
Byalyatski won the prize alongside Russian rights group Memorial and Ukraine’s Center for Civil Liberties on Friday in what will be seen by many as a condemnation of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko.
“He said – I have committed no crime,” Vytis Jurkonis, head of the Vilnius office of Freedom House, a U.S. government-funded human rights advocacy organization, told Reuters in the Lithuanian capital.
Jurkonis, who first met Byalyatski in 2008 and worked with him for years, warned him that Lithuanian authorities had accidentally provided Belarus with his banking details in Lithuania.
On his return from a visit to Lithuania Byalyatski was sentenced to 4-1/2 years in jail in 2011 for alleged evasion of tax on money in his Lithuanian bank accounts. The money was provided by international organizations to fund civil society in Belarus. Byalyatski distributed it there at personal risk to himself.
The funds helped hundreds of people support families after their breadwinners were arbitrarily jailed in Belarus, as well as supporting human rights organizations after their offices were raided and equipment confiscated, Jurkonis said.
“It’s wired by the international foundations and then you are cashing it out and bringing it to the those in need, to the vulnerable people,” Jurkonis said.
“This is something which is persecuted by the regime because they want to pressure the political prisoners, the families, the colleagues and make sure that their lives are ruined”.
Byalyatski was freed in 2014 but jailed again in 2021, once more for alleged tax evasion. He had continued working as a human rights campaigner and took part in mass anti-government protests in Minsk in 2020 which saw tens of thousands people go to the streets for months to demand Lukashenko resign.
“He was there throughout all these years. Not only in 2020, but also in protests which happened long before, in 2010, in 2006, and earlier”, said Jurkonis.
“He is the face of the human rights defenders community in Belarus. He is an embodiment of what human rights defenders should be, sometimes sacrificing even his own security and his personal life for the benefit of the others”, said Jurkonis.
Viasna, the organization Byalyatski founded, has played a leading role in documenting human rights abuses in Belarus.
Belarus authorities are likely to try to extract concessions from the global community to release Byalyatski, as they did many times before with high-profile prisoners, Jurkonis said.
“Our friendship is bittersweet, because I’ve seen him in jail a few times, I know his colleagues who are also in jail, I know his family”, he added.
“If Byalyatski was here, he would, I’m sure, say that it’s an award to the all Belarusian human rights defenders and also to those they were trying to defend. I think he would say that he should be the last to leave jail, making sure that all other political prisoners are released as well”.
Viasna estimates Belarus has about 1,300 political prisoners.
Byalyatski is kept in isolation and only occasionally allowed to send a letter to his family, said Pavel Sapelko, a laywer at Viasna now living in Vilnius.
“We don’t know what Ales is feeling now”, he said.
Banned in Belarus, Viasna operates from Lithuania, Poland, Georgia, Ukraine.
“Our feeling is of a postponed justice – he was nominated many times before”, said Sapelko. “It’s an earned reward, a recognition of the many years of his fight, and a recongnition of Viasna, his main brainchild”.
(Editing by William Maclean)