War in Ukraine: Scottish MSPs join calls for release of Belarusian political prisoner unable to pick up Nobel Peace Prize

MSPs have added their voice to fresh calls for the release of a Belarusian political prisoner who won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Exiled pro-democracy opposition leader of Belarus, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya – whose husband, Siarhei, is also a political prisoner – is to receive the prize on behalf of Ales Bialiatski in Norway on Saturday.

Mr Bialiatski, 60, is the founder of the country's Viasna (Spring) Human Rights Centre, which was set up in 1996 in response to a brutal crackdown of street protests by Belarus's authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko. He has been in prison for more than 500 days, without standing trial.

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In a letter to the Belarusian authorities, including dictator Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled the country since 1992, politicians from governments from across the world, including Scotland, called for Mr Bialiatski's immediate release.

Exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya is to pick up the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of detained activist Ales Bialiatski of Belarus.

The letter, signed by politicians including Liberal Democrat MSPs Liam McArthur, Willie Rennie and the Scottish Conservatives’ Alexander Burnett, as well as parliamentarians from countries including Germany, Sweden, Turkey and Denmark, said: “We, parliamentarians from across Europe and representatives of our people from many countries, call for the release of Ales Bialiatski and all political prisoners in Belarus.

“In October this year the globally respected Nobel Committee recognised Ales Bialiatski’s commitment and work to promote human rights in Belarus when they awarded him the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize.”

The letter pointed out Belarus is signatory to the United Nations’ Convention against Torture and Other Cruel Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The document added: “Mr Bialiatski’s arrest in 2021 is troubling in many ways, not least because the work of Viasna is about Belarus upholding its international commitments.

Belarusian human rights activist Ales Bialiatski speaks after he and the Belarusian human rights organization Vjasna were awarded the 2020 Right Livelihood Award during the 2020 awarding ceremony in Stockholm. He is now in political prison in Belarus.

"It is your responsibility to ensure the rights of your citizens are upheld in your country. It is your responsibility to ensure that your citizens and prisoners in your care are treated with dignity and humanity. Yet you imprison your countrymen and women who campaign to uphold the rights for which you are responsible.”

Irina McLean, co-ordinator of the People's Consulate of Belarus in Scotland, a pro-democracy organisation of Belarusian ex-pats working with Ms Tsikhanouskaya, said: “For the last two years, over 20 people's embassies and consulates of Belarus all over the world have been working to support political prisoners in Belarus. Unfortunately, Ales Bialiatski won't be able to proudly collect his Nobel Peace Prize this year as he is behind bars. We won't stop doing everything we can until every political prisoner in Belarus is free.”

Ms Tsikhanouskaya was widely believed to have won at least 60 per cent of the vote in the 2020 elections in Belarus. But she was ousted by Russian ally Mr Lukashenko, who claimed victory, forcing her to flee into exile in Lithuania, where she has now set up an alternative Belarusian leadership.

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The elections sparked widespread protests in Belarus, lasting months, during which time protesters faced human rights abuses and violence from the authorities. Thousands of people were imprisoned for taking part in the demonstrations and campaigners believe up to 11 people were killed. More than 1,300 people are still behind bars.

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