Kharma Belarus. A December evening in Stockholm, 2022.

By Annette Rosengren. This text is originally in Swedish, and published in Artikel 14, #2 2023. Translation into English by George Farrants.

Conversation with Alena Laptsionak and Aliaksej Koltjyn, active in Viasna, about Nobel prize laureate Ales Bialiatski and other political prisoners in Belarus.

Alena Laptsionak, active in Viasna and a friend of Ales Bialiatski.

Ales Bialiatski was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2022, and is the founder of the Belarusian human rights organisation Viasna, where he is also leader. The Swedish organisation Östgruppen, which works to strengthen democracy and human rights in Eastern Europe, has recreated the Kharma wine bar in Minsk at one of the pubs on Södermalm in Stockholm. The programme for the evening goes under the name “Kharma Belarus at the Whippet Lab”. Alena and her colleague from Viasna, Aliaksej Koltjyn, have just arrived from the Nobel Prize ceremony in Oslo, where Ales’ wife received the prize. I Stockholm, Östgruppen has arranged for them to meet the Swedish prime minister and other representatives for the government and opposition. Ales has been in custody in Belarus for nearly 1½ years, charged with, among other things, economic crimes. The true reason is his long-standing work for human rights in Belarus.

Viasna is one of the best-known human rights organisations in Eastern Europe. Together with 300 other non-governmental organisations, it had its official registration withdrawn by the authorities in 2003, in a clear action against civil society. Since then, Viasna has been registered in Ukraine, and subsequently in Lithuania.

Several of Ales’ colleagues have been imprisoned, and two were remanded in custody in the same case as Ales. These three were sentenced to long prison sentences in March 2023. A further three people active in Viasna are currently serving long prison sentences. One person has completed a sentence of 2½ years and has been released. Rabkova, aged 28, has coordinated the voluntary work carried out by Viasna, and has been sentenced to 14 years and 9 months for “organising and preparing riots”. What she has actually done is lead the volunteers in their work to monitor politically motivated trials and the suppression of demonstrations by the authorities. But the charges concerned preparation for mass riots, inspiring actions to compromise national security, hooliganism, hate crime, and working for a criminal organisation.

Aliaksandr Tamkovich includes a chapter about our Nobel laureate in his book “Contemporary Histories in Faces”. Ales studied history, languages and literature at university in Gomel, and visited historical sites in Belarus while still a student. He discovered that Belarusian was spoken in villages and small towns throughout the country. The language used in his family and many other families was Russian, which was the official language used in society. His meeting with Belarusian as a living language led him to decide to use only Belarusian. He became part of a growing national movement among young people for democracy, where the Belarusian language was an important national symbol, as the traditional Belarusian flag in white-red-white soon would become. Another line that Ales took up was to bring attention to traditional Belarusian folk tales and customs.

Ales Bialiatski was elected to the Minsk city council, and appointed head of a small museum of literature. This became a landing place for several newly formed organisations in civil society working for democracy and human rights. Ales founded the Viasna Center for Human Rights, also known as Spring96 in English. “Viasna” is the Belarusian word for spring. Viasna was registered in 1996 as an independent organisation in the civil society. Its purpose was to show solidarity with political prisoners and support them, provide legal assistance to people who have been subjected to political oppression, and disseminate information about human rights. Viasna grew, and the website of the Nobel Peace Prize for 2022 describes how it “evolved into a broad-based human rights organisation that documented and protested against the authorities’ use of torture against political prisoners.” Many approached Viasna to get help in combatting the fake investigations and unjustified decisions taken by the authorities. Ales left his work at the museum and became leader of Viasna. The organisation gained the allegiance of many voluntary workers, and the work continued after Viasna was banned in 2003.

Ales took the initiative for, and helped to arrange, many activities intended to promote the independence of the country and prevent union with Russia. News of Viasna’s work became widespread, and the organisation formed many international partnerships. It became a member of FIDH (Fédération Internationale pour les Droits Humains), a global organisation based in Paris. Ales was elected one of the vice presidents of FIDH. Valiantsin Stefanovic, a committee member of Viasna, was elected vice president of FIDH in December 2022, while in detention in Belarus.

Tens of thousands of people have sought help from Viasna through the years. It is one of the most well-known human rights organisations in Eastern Europe. It is possible that the Russian human rights organisation Memorial is more well-known internationally than Viasna. It was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize together with Viasna and the Ukrainian human rights organisation Center for Civil Liberties.

The discussion:
The award of the Nobel Prize to Ales is a source of great hope.

The discussion in December at the temporary “Kharma Belarus” bar was chaired by Jon Fridholm, coordinator for Belarus at Östgruppen.

Aliaksej Koltjyn, Viasna: We knew during the demonstrations in 2020 that there would be a price to pay. And we are paying it now. There are nearly 1,500 political prisoners in Belarus at the moment, and there are no indications that this is the end. Rather, the number of people in prison is increasing all the time.

Jon Fridholm, Östgruppen: How did you react when you heard the news about the Nobel Peace Prize? Do you know how Ales took the news?

Alena Laptsionak, Viasna: Ales found out he had been nominated two weeks before the announcement, so he had a lot to take in in a very short period. He had been nominated six times previously. He was very close to being awarded the prize in 2012, which was two years after the presidential election in 2010 and one year after he had been imprisoned for the first time. Oppression was extremely high immediately after the presidential election in 2010: we had never seen anything so bad. At the time, there were 60 political prisoners! Now, there are many, many more in prison. It’s difficult to accept that this is happening in Europe today. So the Nobel Prize is a huge recognition of the work of Viasna and the struggles of the Belarusian people. It’s a great honour, brings huge happiness, and is a bright beacon of hope for the future.

Aliaksej: Ales is only one of thousands of political prisoners in the world today, and it wasn’t obvious that this would happen. Given that he has been nominated six times previously, we have, you know, sort of a mental vision that he had already been awarded it. He has meant so much for our motivation and we have been strengthened by this. Ales is in prison again, and the Nobel Prize has given him and us strength and the will to continue the fight with greater vigour. It has also brought recognition and support to activists. Ales has received congratulations from other prisoners from their cells when passing through the corridor. He was excited to receive us when we visited six months later.

Jon: What do you know about life in custody and as a prisoner?

Alena: All the places used for human rights defendants in Belarus are tough, and the whole situation is shocking, given how the world is today. People under arrest and in detention are not allowed to receive visitors or packages, but they are allowed to walk in the fresh air. We haven’t been able to contact one colleague, Marfa, for 45 days now, and we don’t know what’s happened to her.

All people in custody in Belarus are in principle forbidden to correspond with others, or correspondence is restricted to very close family. And they are held in solitary confinement all the time. Further, they are not allowed to write anything about other people who are being held with them.

Political prisoners are compelled to wear a special symbol on their clothes, so that other prisoners can avoid them. It’s just like the Third Reich in Germany, when Jews were compelled to wear a yellow star.

Aliaksej: From our friends we know that political prisoners are kept in very small cells that are located below ground level. They are only allowed out for brief periods when the sun is not shining. Ales has said that the most difficult thing is the isolation. They nearly never receive any letters, and it seems to be random which letters are actually delivered. The prisoner is to feel alone and isolated, which produces a feeling of resignation. This is why it is so important that people write to the prisoners. We don’t know how many letters are delivered, but we know that the prison guards are influenced when they see that people write many letters to the prisoners.

Jon: It’s difficult to be present during the trials, and the lawyers are not allowed to divulge anything. The degree of transparency is declining. How do work to obtain the information that you do obtain? Are there prisoners that we do not know anything about?

Alena: We can’t say anything about the channels we use. But we can say that we have received letters from many political prisoners, and we can spread information about what they are talking about and the conditions they have in prison, without revealing any names. A political prisoner may, for example, have a cellmate who is not political, and who writes to the family with details. And then there are tube-based systems, which can occasionally be used to communicate with other prisoners. Information will always find a way to spread.

Jon: Do you believe that there are many political prisoners that we don’t know about? Are there many more such prisoners than those you draw attention to?

Aliaksej: Yes, we only know about some prisoners. The way the trials are held and the judicial system in itself make it difficult to spread information. We estimate that there are about twice as many political prisoners than the ones we know about. And the process leading up to a trial is long, and the charges brought are often fictive. The accusation of preparing a coup is very serious and such accusations cannot be simply dismissed. They have to be investigated.

Tens of thousands have been subjected to oppression, including administrative persecution. Hundreds of thousands have fled, and fear has led many migrants to flee.

A question from the audience about the way other prisoners view the status of political prisoners.

Aliaksej: Political prisoners may actually have a high status among the prisoners because they are often educated and intelligent. Other prisoners, however, are forbidden to speak to political prisoners. It’s also a principle that political prisoners are to be totally isolated. This is particularly true for those arrested on administrative grounds. They often have short sentences. It sometimes happens that petty criminals are placed with political prisoners by mistake. Several have described how it was a major shock for them when they saw that political prisoners are held under much tougher conditions. They have poor-quality sheets for example, and aren’t given a pillow. They have to sleep with a plastic bottle under their head. Severe conditions are part of the punishment.

A question from the audience about prohibitions on the mass media and about the Belarusian language.

Alena: It’s impossible to close down independent media completely nowadays. Pretty much the only way is to close down the internet. Most other media have left the country and work from abroad. This has been going on since 2020. With respect to language, only a few schools remain that conduct teaching in Belarusian, and no universities. Teaching is given in Russian. There are no TV channels that transmit in Belarusian. You could say that Belarus is an independent country only in name. The country lies within the Russian media sphere and Russian culture. When the country became independent, Belarusian was declared as its first language. Lukashenko changed that. But some laws are written in the Belarusian language. The strongest campaigner for the Belarusian language has been Ales Bialiatski, and he has done so since the Soviet era. This is also why the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to him is so important. He would be an amazing president and prime minister. I don’t know how this will affect the political prisoners when they are released, but I hope that it will have an effect and the award of the Nobel Prize will have a lasting significance. Ales Bialiatski is one of the most prominent Belarusians.

Jon: Is the positive energy from 2020 still alive, even though the demonstrations have ceased?

Aliaksej: Thanks a lot for bringing 2020 up. What happened was that the Belarusian folk gave a clear “No more” to Lukashenko. “We don’t want you.” And since then, Lukashenko has been at war with his people. It’s like what happens when a large kettle starts to boil. Lukashenko and his folk are trying to keep the lid on and keep the water inside. But it’s not possible. It’s this movement among the Belarusian folk that is preventing Lukashenko from fully joining Putin’s war against Ukraine.

Alena: Aliaksej’s right about everything. Despite the oppression, the Belarusian people are living in hope of victory.

Aliaksej: The Belarusian people are not ready to fight for their cause with weapons. This is a large and difficult question for us who are working to defend human rights. We are constantly appealing to the international community and civil society in other countries to support and help us. They must exert all forms of pressure possible on the Belarusian regime. But it’s obvious that as the years pass and people are compelled to leave the country, the number of Belarusian people who will return after becoming settled in other countries will decrease. As our colleagues in the Russian organisation Memorial said in Oslo: “Help Ukraine to win.” A victory for Ukraine in their war will be positive for us.

Jon: One possible scenario is that as the war turns out badly for Russia, Lukashenko will become more willing to resume dialogue with the EU. If such a dialogue can be established, and the situation in the country becomes slightly better, should Europe participate in it? What do you think?

Aliaksej: It’s a difficult question. Lukashenko has always used political prisoners as a bargaining chip. We have always wanted our friends to be released. Only a few have been so, up until now. The first thing Lukashenko must do, before any dialogue with him can be opened, is to release all political prisoners. Provided that Ukraine wins the war. It’ll be a disaster if Ukraine doesn’t win. Lukashenko must also be held to account – not just for the crimes against Ukraine, but also for all other crimes his regime has committed.

Philipp Galtsov, Östgruppen: Is Viasna working with persecuted people who are being expelled from Europe after applying for asylum? There are several people in Sweden who have applied for asylum. Is there anything Viasna can do for these?

Alena: It’s difficult to give an answer. Swedish law applies in Sweden. It requires that one show evidence to support an application for asylum, and it’s possible the people involved did not have sufficiently strong evidence. When it comes to Poland, Belarusian people can obtain a humanitarian visa without too much difficulty. And many Belarusians apply for a visa on employment grounds. I’m not sure what the situation is for Lithuania. A person who is deported need not always be sent to Belarus: but the person must leave Sweden and travel to another country, one to which a visa is not required. At Viasna, we are happy to work with cases of this type, and we will help those who have valid grounds for being granted asylum. If a mistake has been made, one powerful method to influence the case is to publish the details widely in the media.

Jon: One rejected application we found out about last week was based on country information from 2019.

Dmitri Wasserman, People’s Embassy of Belarus in Sweden: 97% of the Belarusians who apply for asylum in Sweden have their application refused based on assessments carried out in 2019. The grounds for refusal are often absurd. They are refused because they are not prominent people, but the truth is that it’s possible to be arrested in Belarus for having visited Facebook.

Jon: A new Belarusian law came into force yesterday that allows the citizenship of anyone considered to be an extremist to be revoked, no matter where they are in the world. You can be considered to be an extremist simply for liking a social media post. This is a way to attack everyone who has been fighting for a free Belarus. Huge numbers fled to Ukraine, and now they have fled again. So what can civil society do to help people such as yourselves who live in exile?

Alena: You can get involved at several levels. The regimes, politicians, governments and media of the world are important. It’s also important to enter into dialogue with the general public. This is where we are also trying to have an effect. But it’s difficult to live in exile. It’s one thing to visit a country as a tourist, but it’s completely different to be forced to leave one’s country for an indefinite period. It’s difficult to cope with this without help from others. This is true not only for those who have left Belarus, but also for those who have remained. All expressions of care and concern are valuable. It’s also important to exert pressure on the regime. Small things and big things. Go on demonstrations. Carry protest banners. Write cards to political prisoners and post them.

Aliaksej: We who are active in Viasna haven’t left our jobs to improve our own living conditions, but to help our country progress.

Alena: And we want to thank everybody who has come here tonight.

Aktion i Sverige. Foto Annette Rosengren.
Action in Sweden. Photo: Annette Rosengren.

Judgements were passed on the Viasna leaders in March 2023. Ales Bialiatski was sentenced to 10 years in prison, Viasna co-workers Valiantsin Stefanovic and Uladzimir Labkovich to 9 years and 7 years, respectively. Ales was convicted of smuggling money and funding activities that threaten public order. The latter is a very commonly used charge levelled against political prisoners in Belarus. The charge of money smuggling relates to the fact that Viasna has long received international support for its work to promote human rights in Belarus.