On August 4, Belarusian authorities detained Ales Byalyatski, Chairman of the Human Rights Center “Viasna,” and a recipient of a 2011 Atlantic Council Freedom Award.

In June, Byalyatski accepted the Council’s Freedom Award for Viasna’s extraordinary work and in recognition of his long-time struggle for human rights in Belarus. Representatives from Viasna, the Belarusian Association of Journalists, and the Belarus Free Theater received the award jointly, on behalf of the people of Belarus, during the Council’s annual Wrocław Global Forum this past June.


Byalyatski was arrested on charges of tax evasion and faces seven years of imprisonment and confiscation of property. The Viasna Human Rights Center has been unable to pay taxes as a legal entity since Belarusian authorities denied its registration in 2003 and forced the organization to shut down its legal operations. In spite of harassment, detentions, and random searches on the part of authorities, Byalyatski and Viasna’s nationwide network of activists have continued to defend human rights in Belarus for over 15 years.

Atlantic Council President and CEO Fred Kempe condemned the arrest, stating:

The Council’s Freedom Awards recognize courageous individuals like Ales, who are on the frontlines of freedom. Ales is a tireless and fearless human rights defender, and I am deeply concerned about his arrest.Through such actions Belarus distances itself from modern, free societies. The transatlantic community is most effective when it works together to defend those who struggle for freedom in Belarus.

2010 Freedom Award winner Jerzy Buzek, president of the European Parliament, commented:

Dragging people off the streets takes us back to the dark communist past that we do not want repeated ever again. This is unacceptable on our continent in the 21st century. I urge the Belarusian authorities to release Ales Byalyatski and the other unjustly detained political prisoners.

Council Executive Vice President Damon Wilson said this is the time for the United States and Europe to act decisively:

Over the past year, the United States and the European Union have stood shoulder to shoulder in challenging President Lukashenka’s brutal crackdown on civil society. Washington and Brussels should continue to step up pressure, including denying any financial assistance to Minsk. The people of Belarus deserve better than Lukashenka’s dead-end. Through their courageous efforts, they are making it clear that the time has come for Lukashenka to step down and for Belarus to join Europe’s democracies. The United States and Europe should continue to show solidarity with Belarusian civil society and press for the release of all political prisoners.

Council Vice President Frances Burwell stated:

In the aftermath of December’s crackdown, and the continued arrests of activists like Ales, Washington and Brussels must stay more united than ever on Belarus policy. The EU should seek to maximize the impact of its Eastern neighborhood policy to support democratic forces in Belarus and demonstrate to the Belarusian people the potential benefits of greater engagement with Europe.

Cynthia Romero, Associate Director of the Transatlantic Relations Program, expressed concern about the fate of many activists operating inside Belarus:

Right now, Ales and others, including young activists, are under risk of facing long and arbitrary sentences for simply speaking up in Belarus. The international donor community must respond to these threats and learn from past mistakes to lower the risk threshold for those bravely defending human rights and freedom of expression in Belarus. We will have a tragic crisis of leadership if the United States and Europe fail to adequately protect and embolden Belarusian civil society.

The Editors