The June 21 release of Belarusian political prisoner Ales Byalyatski was as much a surprise to him as it was to the international community that has long criticized his imprisonment as politically motivated.
Byalyatski, the head of the Belarusian human rights center Vyasna, was sentenced in November 2011 to 4 and 1/2 years in prison for alleged tax evasion, a charge he and other activists say was retribution for his human rights activities. He is the recipient of several international awards for his human rights work, including the Homo Homini Award and the Vaclav Havel Prize.
Speaking at a June 23 press conference, Byalyatski personally thanked Aleh Hruzdzilovich, a veteran journalist with RFE/RL’s Belarus Service, known locally as Radio Svaboda, for his steadfast coverage of the case, which kept Byalyatski’s plight and that of other political prisoners in the media spotlight.
Officially, Byalyatski was released under the law on "amnesty in connection with the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Belarus from Nazi invaders," which was a general amnesty ratified in May, but Byalyatski credits domestic and international support for his early release.
“I'm very grateful to the hundreds, even thousands, of people who supported me in this situation,” said Byalyatski. “They created such a strong defense, such a shield that no provocation, no amount of pressure could penetrate throughout all these years. In particular, I’d like to thank Belarusian journalists such as Aleh Hruzdzilovich and Ales Lipai (Director of Belapan, an independent news agency) and Zhanna Litvina (Chairwoman of the Belarusian Association of Journalists).”
Byalyatski went on to say that stories of Belarusian political prisoners are emblematic of broader repressions in Belarus, adding, “Our situation reflected the situation in our country. [The journalists] weren’t so much writing about Byalyatski as they were about what is happening with the civil and political rights of an entire nation.”
Hruzdzilovich said the entire Radio Svaboda team considers political prisoners a reporting priority. Their persistent coverage of the case and those of other imprisoned activists includs a weekly radio program dedicated to news about political prisoners, the living conditions they describe, essays and other work written from their cells, and interviews with family members.
“Without such attention from the press, early release from prison in Belarus is impossible,” said Hruzdzilovich.“It provided real moral support to these prisoners, because if left in oblivion, their treatment in prison would have been even worse. Prison administrators felt they were being scrutinized and knew they couldn’t cross certain lines.”
In addition to Radio Svaboda’s regular coverage of Byalyatski’s case, the service added another volume to its popular “Liberty Library” book series with “The Byalyatski Matter,” a compilation of the service’s reporting about his work and the charges against him.
U.S. State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki welcomed Byalyatski’s release in a June 21 statement, but pushed Belarusian authorities to do more.
“We reiterate our call for the Government of Belarus to immediately and unconditionally release all the political prisoners who remain in detention and restore their political rights,” she said.
Hruzdzilovich has worked for Radio Svaboda since 1995, reporting on politics, corruption, crime, the military, and history. He has interviewed Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin, and Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, and was the winner of the 2009 Human Rights Alliance of Belarus Award.