2006: Aljaksandr (Ales) Bialiatski
“It was like coming out of a dark room and into a sunny day.”
On June 21, 2014, the Belarusian prisoner Ales Bialiatski was released after almost three years in captivity. He was dressed in prison garb and put on a train to Minsk.
“It was completely unexpected,” he says. “I borrowed a cell phone from a fellow traveller so I could call my wife back home.”
Ales Bialiatski is a literary scholar who in 1996 founded the human rights organisation Viasna. The group records abuses against the political opposition in Belarus and provides support for political prisoners. Ales has been arrested more than 20 times over the years, often for minor infractions such as distributing copies of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Interview with Ales Bialiatski, recorded after his release.
When Ales Bialiatski comes to Stockholm for a visit, he has been a free man for a couple of months. He was released on June 21, 2014. He was woken up at six in the morning, as usual, together with the other inmates at the prison colony in the city of Babruysk. The prisoners were counted, which was done three times a day, every day. After breakfast, it was time to start work at the textile factory. Ales Bialiatski, who is a professional linguist, packed clothes that other prisoners had sewn.
”But on this day I was suddenly taken from the factory floor and brought to the warden, where the prosecutor was waiting to inform me that I was to be released immediately. It was entirely unexpected. I didn’t even have time to call my wife or my friends.”
You even travelled in your clothes from prison?
“Yes, I travelled in my prison clothes. Everybody could see that I came straight from jail, since I had a shaved head. Inmates’ hair is cut very short in prison.”
When he called his wife Natalia, she was shocked. During his years in prison, Ales and his wife had been allowed to speak on the phone three times a month, always on the same date, at the same time. When Ales called from the train, Natalia could not understand who he was.
“Your husband, Ales Bialiatski.”
He laughs at the memory.
“It was in the middle of summer and Natalia was on her way to our country house when I called. But after my call she immediately took a bus back into town. She made it in time to the train station and was waiting for me when I arrived.”
What was prison like for you?
“The other prisoners were not allowed to talk to me. If anybody gave me a newspaper or something, they were told it was not allowed. If anybody contacted me, they were transferred to another block. This led to me ending up in a sort of information vacuum, you could say. But I tried to compensate for this by writing letters.”
Have you paid a high price for your struggle?
“During Lukashenko’s 20 years in power, hundreds of people have found themselves in the same situation as me, and there will continue to be political prisoners in the future. Perhaps this is the price that social activists must pay for Belarus’s road to democracy. I have always been of the opinion that our work has not been in vain. In prison, I received almost 40,000 letters from people all over the world. This was an enormous moral support that helped me through the hard times.”
What is the situation like in Belarus today?
“The situation remains the way it has been. It is consistently bad. Unfortunately, the Belarus authorities don’t seem to want to change anything when it comes to human rights. They persecute reporters, arrest them, seize their computers and working material. We constantly object to this. Today there are seven political prisoners who are still locked away. At meetings abroad, even here in Sweden, I bring up this question. We demand the release of all political prisoners. We still have a lot of work to do.”
Where do you find the energy to carry on?
“I think it comes from my parents, it is a natural part of me. I try to see life in bright colours, during all stages of my life. I am convinced that the work of myself and my colleagues will not be in vain. The work will bear fruit for our entire people.
Do you feel safe?
“Now I can leave Belarus and return there. But I think that the security service, KGB, closely followed what I do and who I meet with.”
What do you think the future holds? What are your dreams?
“I do have dreams, and wish that Belarus will become a full member of the community of European peoples. This is my biggest and most important dream.”
And what is the most important thing you want to say to young people?
“The most important thing is to find yourself and never lose your interest in living.”
The Living History Forum wishes to note that these interviews are based on the personal testimonies of the prize winners. It is not an objective, factual account by the authorities.
Interview with Natalja Pintjuk, the wife of Ales Bialiatski
Family members are strongly effected when an activist is imprisoned. See the interview with Natalja Pintjuk, the wife of Ales Bialiatski, which was recorded during his imprisonment.
Viasna Human Rights Center
The Viasna Human Rights Center is an NGO founded in 1996 by the democratic opposition in Belarus. Initially, Viasna was an organisation that could provide support for those who had been arrested in connection with the demonstrations of 1996, and their family members. Today, the center organises seminars, lectures and debates for both members and others. Viasna identifies violations against the political opposition, spreads awareness about the situation for political prisoners and organises human rights education.
The citation of the jury for the Per Anger Prize
“For his fearless struggle for the rights of the common man, and for his opposition to the oppression of human rights, Ales Bialiatski is awarded the 2006 Per Anger Prize for humanitarian and democracy-promoting work.”
Ales Bialiatski was nominated by Civil Rights Defenders, formerly the Swedish Helsinki Committee, and was honoured with the Per Anger Prize in 2006. He was imprisoned on August 4, 2011 and released on June 21, 2014.
The Living History Forum works with schools to engage students in issues of human rights.
Here are examples of how to work with the prize winners in a classroom setting