11 July 2024

Human rights activists from Ukraine, Belarus and Russia won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday, a strong rebuke to Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose invasion of Ukraine ruptured decades of nearly uninterrupted peace in Europe, and to the Belarusian president, his authoritarian ally.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the 2022 prize to imprisoned Belarus activist Ales Bialiatski, the Russian group Memorial and the Ukrainian organization Center for Civil Liberties. Bialiatski is the fourth laureate to be honored while in detention.

Berit Reiss-Andersen, chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, said the panel was honoring “three outstanding champions of human rights, democracy and peaceful coexistence.”

“We are in the midst of a war and we are talking about two authoritarian regimes and one nation fighting a war and we would like to highlight the importance of civil society,” she said.

In Ukraine, there was some resentment at awarding the Ukrainian group alongside activists from Russia and Belarus, whose government allowed Russian forces to attack Ukraine from its territory.

Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak tweeted that the Nobel committee has “an interesting understanding of the word ‘peace’ if representatives of two countries that attacked a third one receive” the prize together.

“Neither Russian nor Belarusian organizations were able to organize resistance to the war,” he said.

Ales Bialiatski, the jailed leader of Vesna, the most prominent human rights group in Belarus, stands in a cage during a court session in Minsk, Belarus, Thursday, Nov. 24, 2011. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits, File)

Belarus’ Foreign Ministry denounced the Nobel Committee for honoring Bialiatski, with the spokesman calling its choices in recent years so “politicized” that “Alfred Nobel got tired of turning in his grave.”

Olav Njølstad, director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute, retorted: “Well, I’m quite sure we understand Alfred Nobel’s will and intentions better than the dictatorship in Minsk.”

Asked whether the Nobel Committee was intentionally rebuking Putin, whose 70th birthday is Friday, Reiss-Andersen said the prize was not against anyone but for the democratic values the winners champion. However, she did note that both the Russian and Belarusian governments were “suppressing human rights activists.”

It was the second straight year that Putin’s repressive government was implicitly rebuked with the prize. It was awarded last year to Dmitry Muratov, editor of the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, and Philippine journalist Maria Ressa, for their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression. Both have struggled in the past year.

Bialiatski was a leader of the democracy movement in Belarus in the mid-1980s and has continued to campaign for human rights and civil liberties. He founded the non-governmental organization Human Rights Center Viasna.

He was detained following protests in 2020 against the re-election of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. He remains in jail without trial and faces up to 12 years in prison if convicted.

“Despite tremendous personal hardship, Mr. Bialiatski has not yielded one inch in his fight for human rights and democracy in Belarus,” Reiss-Andersen said.

Pavel Sapelko, one of the leaders of Viasna, told The Associated Press that the Belarusian authorities will not be able to ignore the fact that Bialiatski won the prize.

“It is a clear signal from the international community to the regime of Lukashenko, who must free all political prisoners,” Sapelko said by phone from the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, where he settled after being forced to leave Belarus. “The Nobel prize to Bialiatski is both a lifeline, an alarm and a recognition of achievements.”

Six of Viasna’s rights activists are currently jailed, while more than two dozen others operate in secrecy, monitoring the worsening human rights situation in Belarus.

The entrance to human rights group Memorial’s office, in Moscow, Russia

Memorial was founded in the Soviet Union in 1987 to ensure the victims of communist repression would be remembered. It has continued to compile information on human rights abuses and track the fate of political prisoners in Russia. The country’s highest court ordered it shut down in December, the latest move in a relentless crackdown on rights activists, independent media and opposition supporters.

Tatyana Glushkova, a board member of the Memorial Human Rights Defense Center, said one of the reasons the Kremlin views the group as a threat is because it understands and informs people about the “parallels between Putin’s regime and the Soviet regime.”

Glushkova noted the award came on the day the group once again had to appear in court — this time on a case related to its Moscow office building. The court later ordered the building confiscated at the government’s request.

The Center for Civil Liberties was founded in 2007 to promote human rights and democracy in Ukraine during a period of turmoil in the country. Following Russia’s invasion in February, the group has worked to document Russian war crimes against Ukrainian civilians.

“The center is playing a pioneering role with a view to holding the guilty parties accountable for their crimes,” Reiss-Andersen said.

A researcher at the center, Volodymyr Yavorskyi, said the award was important for the organization because “for many years we worked in a country that was invisible.”

“Human rights activity is the main weapon against the war,” said Yavorskyi, who is married to a Belarusian and lived in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, until May 2021, when he was expelled along with his 9-year-old son. He is barred from entering

Volodymyr Yavorskyi, the expert of the Center of Civil Liberties, shows a V-sign in Kyiv, Ukraine, Friday, Oct. 7, 2022.

Belarus for 10 years and said law enforcement beat him during interrogations.

The prize carries a cash award of 10 million Swedish kronor (nearly $900,000) and will be handed out on Dec. 10. The money comes from a bequest left by the prize’s creator, Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel, in 1895.

Besides Bialiatski, three other laureates received the prize while in prison or detention. German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky won in1935, infuriating Adolf Hitler. Aung San Suu Kyi was in house arrest in Myanmar when she won in 1991. Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo was serving an 11-year sentence when he was awarded the Nobel in 2010 and remained imprisoned until he died from liver cancer in 2017.

If Bialiatski is unable to receive the award in person, he can ask a representative to collect it for him, like Polish winner Lech Walesa did in 1983, said Olav Njoelstad, prize committee secretary. Otherwise, the committee might choose to symbolically place an empty chair on the stage, like it did when Liu won.

By Hanna Arhirova, Frank Jordans, and Vanessa Gera – Associated Press