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Ales Bialiatski from Belarus and human rights groups from Russia and Ukraine win Nobel Peace Prize

Belarusian human rights activist Ales Bialiatski speaks at an event in Stockholm on Dec. 3, 2020. He has since been imprisoned pending a trial as Belarus has cracked down on opposition figures since a disputed 2020 election. (Anders Wiklund/TT News Agency/Getty Images - image credit)
Belarusian human rights activist Ales Bialiatski speaks at an event in Stockholm on Dec. 3, 2020. He has since been imprisoned pending a trial as Belarus has cracked down on opposition figures since a disputed 2020 election. (Anders Wiklund/TT News Agency/Getty Images - image credit)

Ales Bialiatski from Belarus, the Russian human rights organization Memorial and the Ukrainian human rights organization Center for Civil Liberties were jointly honoured for the Nobel Peace Prize. It was announced Friday in Oslo.

"The Peace Prize laureates represent civil society in their home countries. They have for many years promoted the right to criticize power and protect the fundamental rights of citizens," the Norwegian Nobel Committee said in its citation.

"They have made an outstanding effort to document war crimes, human right abuses and the abuse of power. Together they demonstrate the significance of civil society for peace and democracy."

Bialiatski, 60, has been an advocate for democracy in Belarus since the 1980s and formed the rights organization Viasna, which means "spring."

He was imprisoned between 2011 and 2014 for tax evasion, charges his supporters said where politically motivated. Arrested again in July 2021 on unclear charges, he remains in pre-trial detention.

Committee calls for Bialiatski's release

Widespread protests rocked Belarus after the August 2020 presidential election, when autocrat Alexander Lukashenko won with an improbable 80 per cent of the vote. Several opposition politicians and activists fled the country, and others reported being subjected to beatings and abuse while imprisoned.

Belarusian opposition politician Pavel Latushko heralded the award on Friday.

Anders Wiklund/TT News Agency/Getty Images
Anders Wiklund/TT News Agency/Getty Images

"It's not only for him but for all political prisoners which we have now in Belarus," Latushko said. "It motivates all of us to struggle and we are sure we will win with the dictatorship of Lukashenko."

"Despite tremendous personal hardship, Bialiatski has not yielded one inch in his fight for human rights and democracy in Belarus," said Berit Reiss-Andersen, chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee.

Reaction from exiled Belarusian opposition leader:

The panel called for his release, but acknowledged the possibility that by awarding him the prize, Bialiatski might face additional scrutiny from authorities in Belarus.

"We do pray that this price will not affect him negatively, but we hope it might boost his morale," said Reiss-Andersen.

Memorial fights for survival

Russia's Memorial was established in 1987, with Nobel Peace laureate Andrei Sakharov among its founders. It worked to expose dictator Joseph Stalin's crimes and other Soviet-era repression.

The group also documented abuses in modern Russia, and in 2016 was declared a "foreign agent" by the government — a label that implies additional government scrutiny and carries strong negative connotations that can discredit the targeted organization. Beginning in late 2021, the Kremlin began taking court action to remove its legal status as a protected organization.

WATCH | Russia's Memorial faces crackdown:

Russia's Supreme Court in a ruling declared that Memorial "creates a false image of the U.S.S.R. as a terrorist state, whitewashes and rehabilitates Nazi criminals," but the organization's leaders vowed to continue its work.

The organization has also been standing at the forefront of efforts to combat militarism and promote human rights and government based on the rule of law," said Reiss-Andersen.

Tatyana Glushkova, a board member of the Memorial Human Rights Defense Center, said she learned about the award from the news. "It was a shock," she told the AP. "We are very, very happy."

"For us, this is a sign that our work, whether it is recognized by the Russian authorities or not, it is important for the world, it is important for people in Russia," Glushkova said.

Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images
Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images

Glushkova noted that the award was handed to the group on a day when it once again had to appear in court in Moscow — this time on a case related to its office building in central Moscow.

International Memorial owned the building, but after the group was shut down, it gave the building to one of its affiliate organizations, the Memorial Research and Education Center. Russian authorities are contesting the deal in court.

Not a message to Putin: Nobel panel chair

The Center for Civil Liberties was founded in Kyiv in 2007 to promote democracy during a period of turmoil in the country.

Since Russia's invasion on Feb. 24, it has worked to help document Russian war crimes against Ukrainian civilians.

A representative of the Center for Civil Liberties, Volodymyr Yavorskyi, said the award was important for the organization, because "for many years we worked in a country that was invisible."

"This is a surprise for us," he told The Associated Press. "But human rights activity is the main weapon against the war."

The group's executive director, Oleksandra Romantsova, got a phone call from Nobel Committee member Olav Nojelstad ahead of the announcement to congratulate the activists.

"It is great, thank you," an almost speechless and clearly delighted Romantsova said in response.

"For us it is really important, like part of Ukrainian society and culture to understand what it means, so thank you," she said, her voice breaking up with emotion. "It is incredible."

Belarus's Lukashenko has been arguably Putin's strongest supporter since Russia launched its Ukraine invasion.

Asked whether the Nobel Committee was intentionally sending a signal to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who turned 70 on Friday, Reiss-Andersen said "we always give a prize for something and to somebody and not against anyone." However, she did note that both the Russian and Belarusian governments were "suppressing human rights activists."

"This prize is not addressing President Putin, not for his birthday or in any other sense, except that his government, as the government in Belarus, is representing an authoritarian government that is suppressing human rights activists," she said.

It was the second straight year that efforts to counter state repression were honoured. The prize 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.

The Nobel Peace Prize is worth 10 million Swedish kronor (over $1.2 million Cdn) and will be presented in Oslo on Dec. 10, the anniversary of the death of Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel, who founded the awards in his 1895 will.