Belarus puts Nobel Prize-winning rights defender on trial

Byalyatski, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Russian rights group Memorial and Ukraine's Center for Civil Liberties in October, was arrested in 2021 along with two co-workers.

 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ales Byalyatski, who co-founded the Viasna human rights group, sits inside a defendants' cage during a court hearing in Minsk, Belarus January 5, 2023. (photo credit: VITALY PIVOVARCHIK/BELTA/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ales Byalyatski, who co-founded the Viasna human rights group, sits inside a defendants' cage during a court hearing in Minsk, Belarus January 5, 2023.
(photo credit: VITALY PIVOVARCHIK/BELTA/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ales Byalyatski went on trial in Belarus on Thursday, facing up to 12 years in jail in a case his allies see as political retribution for his rights work.

The 60-year-old, who co-founded the Viasna human rights group, and two other representatives of the group who also went on trial watched from inside a metal cage before proceedings were adjourned until Friday. All pleaded not guilty.

Byalyatski, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Russian rights group Memorial and Ukraine's Center for Civil Liberties in October, was arrested in 2021 along with two co-workers from Viasna.

Charges and projected jail time 

The trio faces from seven to 12 years in jail on charges of financing protests and smuggling money. Byalyatski has not commented on the allegations publicly and his lawyer is prohibited from disclosing information about the case.

 Uladzimir Labkovich, a member of the Viasna human rights group, sits inside a defendants' cage during a court hearing in Minsk, Belarus January 5, 2023. (credit: VITALY PIVOVARCHIK/BelTA/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS) Uladzimir Labkovich, a member of the Viasna human rights group, sits inside a defendants' cage during a court hearing in Minsk, Belarus January 5, 2023. (credit: VITALY PIVOVARCHIK/BelTA/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

Television footage from the courtroom showed the three men seated on benches inside a metal cage, handcuffed and in silence as proceedings began.

A fourth rights defender who fled Belarus is being prosecuted in absentia in the same case.

Viasna said on Twitter that the judge had refused to conduct the trial in Belarusian instead of Russian, and rejected Byalyatski's request for a translator. It also did not consider a request to remove the handcuffs.

Some 30 people had appeared at the courtroom, including Western diplomats, but most were not allowed inside.

The group took a leading role in providing legal and financial assistance to hundreds of Belarusians who were jailed during mass protests that flared when long-time leader Alexander Lukashenko, in power since 1994, claimed a landslide election victory in 2020.

"The allegations against our colleagues are linked to their human rights activity, the Viasna human rights center's provision of help to the victims of politically motivated persecution," the group said of the case.

Byalyatski and his colleagues have been labeled "political prisoners" by fellow rights defenders. Those rights advocates estimate there are around 1,500 political prisoners in Belarusian prisons.

Around 50,000 people have been detained for taking part in protests or criticizing the authorities since 2020, they say.