The Belarusian laureate is a longtime pillar of Eastern Europe’s human rights movement.
WARSAW — She has not seen her husband, the new Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ales Bialiatski, since a few days before his arrest in July 2021, and still has not been told when and for what he will be put on trial. Their letters to each other sometimes get delivered but, for long periods, don’t arrive.
“I dare not say what that this award might mean,” Natalia Pinchuk, Mr. Bialiatski’s wife, said in a telephone interview from Minsk, the Belarusian capital, after he was announced as one of the prize’s 2022 recipients on Friday. “Of course, I have hopes, but I’m afraid to express them. There is always this fear.”
Though not widely known in the West, Mr. Bialiatski, 60, has been a pillar of the human rights movement in Eastern Europe since the late 1980s, when Belarus was still part of the Soviet Union but, inspired by the reforms of Mikhail S. Gorbachev in Moscow, was slowly shaking off decades of paralyzing fear.
He was active in Tutajshyja, or “The Locals,” a dissident cultural organization that helped lay the groundwork in the late Soviet period for a movement calling for the independence of Belarus.
After the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and the 1994 election of Belarus’s authoritarian leader, President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, Mr. Bialiatski helped found and lead Viasna, or Spring, a rights group whose members are now nearly all in prison or living in exile abroad.
He served for a time as the director of a museum honoring Maksim Bahdanovic, a poet who is considered a founder of modern Belarusian literature, but was forced out of that post when Mr. Lukashenko, who has now been president for 28 years, started cracking down on the Belarusian language and promoting Russian.
Andrei Sannikov, a longtime friend of Mr. Bialiatski’s and opponent of Mr. Lukashenko’s, hailed the Nobel Peace Prize as an “extremely important” boost to “all of us who have been fighting for human rights and human dignity” in Belarus, and a reminder to the West that it needs to put more pressure on Mr. Lukashenko to release what Mr. Sannikov said were more than 4,000 political prisoners.
What to Know About the Nobel Prizes
An annual event. Every October, committees in Sweden and Norway name Nobel laureates for their contributions in fields including physics, literature and peace work. This year, the Nobel Prizes will be awarded from Oct. 3 to 10. Here is what to know:
What are the prizes? Six Nobel Prizes are awarded every year, each recognizing an individual’s or organization’s groundbreaking contribution to a specific field. Prizes are given for physiology or medicine, physics, chemistry, economic science, literature and peace work.
When were the awards established? The Nobel Prizes were established after the death of Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor of dynamite and other explosives, in 1896. In his will, Nobel bequeathed the bulk of his fortune to create five annual prizes honoring ingenuity.
What do the winners receive? Nobel Prize laureates receive a Nobel Prize diploma, a Nobel Prize medal and a monetary award, which for 2022 is 10 million Swedish krona, or about $900,000 according to current exchange rates, for a full prize.
How do the nominations work? Eligible nominators, which include university professors, scientists, members of national governments and previous Nobel Prize laureates, submit the names of potential candidates each year. Nominations for 2022 had to be submitted by Jan. 31.
Who selects the winners? Four separate institutions are responsible for picking the winners: the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for the Nobel Prizes in Physics and Chemistry, the Karolinska Institute for the Nobel Prize in Medicine, the Swedish Academy for the Nobel Prize in Literature, and a committee of five people elected by the Norwegian Parliament for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Isn’t there a prize for economics? Yes, but it is technically not a Nobel Prize. The Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel was not among the awards originally stipulated in Nobel’s will. The economics prize was established by the Bank of Sweden in 1968; the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has been selecting the winners since 1969.
“I hope this sends a strong signal to both Lukashenko and his prison wardens that the world is watching and will definitely punish the perpetrators,” Mr. Sannikov, who now lives in exile in Poland, said in an interview.
Mr. Bialiatski, he added, “has been in the forefront of defending human rights against terrible odds for decades.”
When Mr. Sannikov, a former deputy foreign minister who resigned his post in 1996 to protest Mr. Lukashenko’s increasingly repressive policies, was put on trial in 2011 for taking part in peaceful protests, Mr. Bialiatski testified on his behalf — and was arrested shortly afterward. Put on trial on trumped-up charges of tax evasion, Mr. Bialiatski was sentenced to four and a half years in jail. He was released on amnesty in 2014.
The 2011 charges related to money he had received from abroad to help fund the Viasna rights group, of which he was president, and were based in part on confidential banking information provided to Belarusian prosecutors by Lithuania and Poland. The case, Mr. Sannikov said, showed how the European authorities had sometimes been complicit in helping Mr. Lukashenko consolidate his increasingly autocratic regime.
Europe and the West in general “do not pay enough attention to human rights in Belarus,” he said, describing conditions in Belarusian prisons as “absolutely terrible,” including frequent use of torture and other abuses.
Natalia Satsunkevich, a Viasna activist who now lives in exile, told Dozhd, an online Russian television channel that has been shut down in Russia and now operates from abroad, that Mr. Bialiatski was being held in “inhuman conditions” in a decrepit prison inside a 200-year-old Minsk fortress.
Awarding him the Peace Prize, along with recipients from Ukraine and Russia, she said, was “very symbolic” and highlighted “how closely these countries are now connected by war,” although that concept met with criticism from some in Ukraine on Friday.
Mr. Bialiatski’s wife said that she and her husband, in their letters to each other, did not discuss his treatment in jail or the criminal case against him, writing only “carefully.” Visits and phone calls are forbidden, she said.
The Nobel Peace Prize, she added, had come as a “total surprise.” She said she had received a phone call, apparently from the prize committee in Oslo, early Friday but had been unable to hear what was being said because she was outside on a noisy street.
Noticing a flood of missed calls on her cellphone, she finally learned that her husband had been selected for the award when she called back a friend who had been trying to reach her.
“I never considered this even possible,” Ms. Pinchuk said, adding that she had sent a telegram to her jailed husband but had received no reply.
Held without formal charges since his detention outside Minsk more than a year ago, Mr. Bialiatski is under investigation, along with other jailed members of Viasna, for organizing “protest, extremist and terrorist actions,” according to a statement in late September by Belarusian investigators.
The case is part of a sweeping and brutal crackdown on dissent in Belarus that unfolded across the country after huge street protests erupted in 2020. The protests, which were eventually crushed with help from Russian security forces, followed Mr. Lukashenko’s implausible claim that he had won a landslide victory in presidential elections in August 2020 that were widely denounced as fraudulent. It was his sixth election “victory.”
Mr. Lukashenko, repaying the Kremlin for its support, allowed Belarusian territory to be used by Russian forces as staging ground for their invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24.
Mr. Sannikov said the naming of Mr. Bialiatski as a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize would help focus attention on Mr. Lukashenko’s role in the invasion of Ukraine, for which his country has been punished with economic sanctions, but with far less severity than the penalties imposed on Russia.
“Inevitably there will now be a period of attention,” Mr. Sannikov said, adding that he hoped it would translate into specific support for Mr. Lukashenko’s opponents.