RFE/RL's Belarus Service
introduced another volume to its popular “Liberty Library” book series with the January launch of The Byalyatski Matter,
a book based on broadcasts about the work and imprisonment of renowned civil rights activist Ales Byalyatski. The release of the activist’s story coincided with recent protests throughout Belarus and a wave of online support for Byalyatski and other jailed dissidents.
Byalyatski, a co-founder of the Viasna Human Rights Center and vice-president of the International Federation of Human Rights, was arrested in August 2011 on charges of tax evasion and sentenced to more than four years in prison. His supporters insist the charges are politically motivated
, and numerous human rights organizations and western governments have condemned his imprisonment.
Just ahead of the book launch, three human rights activists were convicted
of participating in an “unauthorized demonstration” and fined 1.5 million rubles ($173) for posting online a photo of themselves holding portraits of Byalyatski. This initial conviction led to several solidarity web posts
by activists, some of whom have also been fined by Belarusian authorities.
The Byalyatski Matter is the 38th edition of the Liberty Library book series, which is paid for by the Belarus Service and distributed for free inside Belarus and abroad. It follows Byalyatski’s career, from his opposition to the Soviet regime to later activities against the so-called “last dictatorship in Europe”
of Alexander Lukashenko.
Belarus Service Director Alexander Lukashuk said that within the first month of publication the service has already received more than 1,500 requests for copies of the book from inside Belarus. He added that Liberty Library books have been especially popular with young people, and he has received stacks of letters from young readers to that effect.
“When old media and a young audience combine, something miraculous happens.” Lukashuk said.
The text also includes a close examination of Byalyatski’s eight-day trial in 2011, as well as dozens of photos and expert analysis.
“This book is not just for Byalyatski’s friends who believe in his innocence,” said writer Siarhei Dubavec. “This book is for Belarusians and the world. It’s about the real facts of the case and the life of its protagonist, who has incurred the wrath of the Belarusian authorities and deserves the admiration of the whole world.”
Byalyatski, who received a copy of the book while in prison, was surprised and humbled.
“This book was a real Christmas gift for me,” he wrote from his prison cell. “I think it is something unprecedented, and, speaking sincerely, I didn't feel too comfortable when I found myself in the center of its attention. But the book will have its own life.”
The Belarus Service and the book’s author Valer Kalinouski, a 25-year veteran correspondent for RFE/RL, said they worked clandestinely with a trusted publisher who risked being shut down by the authorities if caught printing the book. According to Lukashuk, the printer had to carefully stagger production in order to avoid detection.
In the introduction to The Byalyatski Matter, President of the National Endowment for Democracy Carl Gershman writes that Byalyatski’s story of personal sacrifice could well be a catalyst for real political change in Belarus, as could the man himself.
“He is one of the few opposition leaders who unites rather than divides,” wrote Gershman. “He is respected by everyone across the political spectrum of the opposition and could emerge from jail as a unifying political leader.”