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A jailed Belarus activist and two groups from Ukraine and Russia have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for championing human rights and democracy.
The decision to honour Ales Bialiatsky, Russia’s Memorial and the Ukrainian Centre for Civil Liberties (CCL) is a rebuff to two authoritarian leaders.
Russia forced Memorial to close last December, ahead of Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine.
Bialiatsky was imprisoned amid protests against Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko.
Ukraine’s CCL has monitored political persecutions and crimes against humanity in areas of the country occupied or annexed by Russia.
Norwegian Nobel Committee head Berit Reiss-Andersen told reporters that all three had made “an outstanding effort to document war crimes, human right abuses and the abuse of power”.
Asked whether the committee was sending a signal to Russia’s leader on his 70th birthday, she pointed out that the Nobel prize was always awarded “for something and to somebody and not against anyone”.
Belarus’s long-time ruler is a close ally of President Putin. After a re-election in 2020 that was widely condemned as rigged, he brutally cracked down on protesters and then allowed Russian forces to use his country as a launchpad in its war against Ukraine.
Ales Bialiatsky, 60, founded Belarus rights group Viasna, which means spring, in 1996, two years after Mr Lukashenko came to power. He was first jailed in 2011, then last year, he was detained again without charge. He is one of 1,348 people who Viasna says are currently held as political prisoners in Belarus.
Exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya praised the Nobel committee’s “recognition for all Belarusians fighting for freedom and democracy” and Bialiatsky’s wife Natallia Pinchuk said she was “overwhelmed with emotion”.
A foreign ministry spokesman in Minsk said Alfred Nobel was “turning in his grave” following the decision to hand Bialiatsky the Nobel Peace Prize.
Memorial is one of the oldest human rights groups in Russia. Led initially by another Peace Prize laureate, Andrei Sakharov, in the late 1980s, its work uncovered the true scale of Joseph Stalin’s repression in the form of Gulag camps of forced labour, where tens of millions of people are thought to have died.
But it went on to document more recent human rights abuses, including kidnappings and torture in the Russian republic of Chechnya.
The head of its Chechen branch, Natalia Estemirova, was murdered in 2009.
My mum was Memorial and Memorial was my mum. She worked tirelessly to help the victims of the Russian war in Chechnya and hold the criminal regime to account. I wish she could be here to share this triumph with her colleagues. But everything we do, we do in her memory. pic.twitter.com/kDgCwj2bDg
— Lana Estemirova🇺🇦 (@lanaestemirova) October 7, 2022
In December 2021, Russia’s Supreme Court liquidated Memorial, although it continues to operate in a harsh climate where criticism of the war in Ukraine is considered a criminal offence.
The head of International Memorial, Elena Zhemkova, told the BBC that the Nobel prize would help their work: “We always said at Memorial that memory of the past and human rights have no boundaries. To understand the Soviet past demands joint efforts. No country can privatise the memory about the war and repression.”
However, officials in Moscow were less impressed. The head of Russia’s human rights council, Valery Fadeyev, urged Memorial to reject the prize, describing it as completely discredited, Tass news agency reports.
Although a Ukrainian organisation was jointly awarded the peace prize, there was some annoyance in Kyiv that it was shared with representatives of Belarus and Russia.
“Neither Russian nor Belarusian organisations were able to organise resistance to the war. This year’s Nobel is ‘awesome’,” tweeted presidential adviser Mikhailo Podolyak sarcastically.
Ukraine’s Centre for Civil Liberties has in recent months turned its attention to abuses committed by Russian forces, after spending the previous years documenting political persecution in Russian-annexed Crimea and crimes in areas of eastern Ukraine run by Russian-backed separatists.
The centre’s head, Oleksandra Matviychuk, said she was delighted they were sharing the prize with “our friends and partners at Memorial and Viasna”.
In order to give the hundreds of thousands of victims of war crimes a chance of justice, she said an international tribunal should be created to “bring Putin, Lukashenko and other war criminals to justice”.