PEN welcomes the release of the Belarusian writer and human rights defender, Ales Bialiatski following an amnesty on 21 June. We call for the Belarusian authorities to clear his record of the politically-motivated charges on which he was convicted almost three years ago
Marian Botsford Fraser, Chair of the Writers in Prison Committee of PEN International, said: ‘Ales Bialiatski’s unjust imprisonment is emblematic of the harsh challenges facing writers and activists in Belarus, a country whose government continues to severely restrict the rights to free expression, free association and assembly. Whilst welcoming Bialiatski’s release, we remain deeply concerned by Belarus’ systematic political intimidation of both foreign and national media, which pushes writers and journalists into self-censorship.’
Bialiatski is the founder of the Viasna Human Rights Center, a Belarusian non-governmental organisation that campaigns for opposition activists who are harassed and persecuted by the Belarusian authorities. On 4 August 2011, Bialiatski was arrested on spurious charges of tax evasion; on 24 November 2011, he was sentenced to four-and-a-half years’ imprisonment in a high security prison colony, with all of his property confiscated.
PEN campaigned for Bialiatski’s release, maintaining that he had been targeted as part of the Belarus authorities’ crackdown on free expression which began in late 2010. He was a key focus of the 79th PEN International Congress, held in Reykjavik, Iceland, where he was selected to be the honorary ‘Empty Chair’.
At the same Congress, PEN addressed a public letter to President Lukashenko, demanding that Bialiatski be freed, that his conviction be overturned, and that he be provided with an enforceable right to compensation for his arbitrary detention. The letter was signed by PEN International’s president, John Ralston Saul, and by 51 PEN centres from around the world.
Bialiatski was kept in harsh conditions whilst in prison. On his release, he spoke of the isolation he had experienced whilst incarcerated:
‘Political prisoners in Belarusian jails are kept in different conditions than other prisoners. For instance, no one was allowed to talk to me, even if it was a friendly chat about weather or football, a person who approached me could be punished by the prison authorities. That was just one of many examples of physiological pressure political prisoners face in jail.
‘I am not sorry for those three years I spent in prison. This is the price you pay for making Belarus a free and democratic country. If we want to improve our life and drag Belarus out of the swamp it has been in for 20 years already, we need to be active and not to be afraid of repressions civil society faces. I knew what I was in prison for – that is why it was easy for me emotionally.’
Ales Bialiatski was a founding member of the Belarusian literary organisation Tutejshyja (The Locals), and served as a former head of the Maxim Bahdanovich Literary Museum in Minsk. He has been awarded several human rights prizes in recognition of his work, most recently being awarded the first ever Václav Havel Human Rights Prize in September 2013. He is a Vice-President of the International Federation of Human Rights.
In 2012, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found that his detention was arbitrary and urged the Belarusian authorities to release him and accord him an enforceable right to compensation.