The word ‘hope’: Waiting for a husband to come back home

An interview with Natalia Pinchuk, wife of Ales Bialiatski, a prominent human rights activist and prisoner of conscience from Belarus. Ales is featured in our ongoing Write for Rights 2012 global letter writing event.

By Amnesty International’s Svetlana Vorobyeva.

I was a little nervous before the interview. It is always difficult talking to people whose close relatives have been imprisoned following an unfair trial. Natalia and Ales have been married for 25 years; it is difficult to imagine what she has been through in the last year and a half, since Ales was arrested. It was the first time I had spoken to Natalia directly, and after couple of minutes I was already impressed by her strength and her courage.

Ales Bialiatski was arrested in the afternoon on 4 August 2011. He, Natalia and their son, Adam, had just returned to their apartment in Minsk after a trip to the countryside. Ales went out and came back home after a while with plain clothes police officers who showed documents authorizing a search of their apartment. After taking him to his office for another search, they arrested him for “concealment of income on a large scale”.

The charge was related to Ales’ organization, the Human Rights Centre Viasna, which was de-recognized by the Belarusian authorities in 2003. Unable to open a bank account in its name in Belarus, Ales used his personal bank accounts in neighbouring countries to fund his work. He and his colleagues tried unsuccessfully to re-register their organization several times.

As Natalia put it: “After Viasna was liquidated, the authorities saw it as an illegal, unregistered organization. Despite this, Ales and his organization have helped those who suffered from the regime. This wasn’t just his job, it was his deep understanding of the situation, and his heartfelt desire to help those in need”.

On 24 November 2011, Ales was sentenced to four and a half years in prison after an unfair trial. Natalia told me that she had expected this outcome. How can you expect something else in a country where human rights violations, especially violations of freedom of expression, assembly and association, are commonplace? Where every day we hear of human rights defenders and opposition political activists being harassed, detained and some imprisoned for years, for simply exercising their rights.

Natalia and I talked about the loneliness that the past year has brought. Ales was imprisoned and their son is now living abroad. “All that is connected to my life is also directly connected to Ales, so his absence is very palpable,” Natalia said.

Several times, Natalia thanked all of those who have supported them over the years. “I would like to express gratitude on his behalf, to all those who are supporting Ales at such a difficult time. He knows it and he feels it, and this is the most important thing.”

To my question about her dreams for the future, Natalia replied: “I have learned to remove the word “hope” from my vocabulary: because of what has happened this year, and because our hopes have been disappointed so often. After that it becomes very painful and hard to bear these disappointments.”

However, after our interview, Natalia wrote to me: “I said that I avoid the word “hope”, but anyway, I still hope that what you are doing will give a positive result and that Ales will be released”.

After all, behind all her courage and strength, she is simply a woman who is missing her husband and waiting for him to come back home.