KYIV, Ukraine (AP) -- Activists from Ukraine, Belarus and Russia won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday, a strong rebuke to Russian President Vladimir Putin whose invasion of Ukraine has outraged the international community and highlighted his authoritarian rule.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the 2022 prize to imprisoned Belarus rights activist Ales Bialiatski, the Russian group Memorial and the Ukrainian organization Center for Civil Liberties.
Berit Reiss-Andersen, chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, said the panel wanted to honor "three outstanding champions of human rights, democracy and peaceful coexistence."
"Through their consistent efforts in favor of human values and anti-militarism and principles of law, this year's laureates have revitalized and honored Alfred Nobel's vision of peace and fraternity between nations, a vision most needed in the world today," she told reporters in Oslo.
Asked whether the Nobel Committee was intentionally sending a signal to Putin, who celebrated his 70th birthday Friday, Reiss-Andersen said that "we always give a prize for something and to somebody and not against anyone."
"This prize is not addressing President Putin, not for his birthday or in any other sense, except that his government, as the government in Belarus, is representing an authoritarian government that is suppressing human rights activists," she said.
Bialiatski was one of the leaders of the democracy movement in Belarus in the mid 1980s and has continued to campaign for human rights and civil liberties in the authoritarian country. He founded the non-governmental organization Human Rights Center Viasna.
He was detained following protests in 2020 against the re-election of Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko, a close ally of Putin. He remains in jail without trial.
"Despite tremendous personal hardship, Mr Bialiatski has not yielded one inch in his fight for human rights and democracy in Belarus," Reiss-Andersen said, adding that the Nobel panel was calling on Belarusian authorities to release him.
Exiled Belarus opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, visiting Paris, told The Associated Press that the award would further increase the spotlight on Belarusian political prisoners and said she felt "honored and delighted" that Bialiatski was among the laureates, calling him a "famous human rights defender in Belarus and in the world" and a "wonderful person."
"For sure, it will attract more attention to (the) humanitarian situation in our country," she said of the award.
Tsikhanouskaya, whose husband is also imprisoned, said Bialiatski "is suffering a lot in punishment cells" in prison in Belarus.
"But there are thousands of other people who are detained because of their political views, and I hope that it will raise awareness about our country and practical steps will have been done in order to release those people who sacrificed with their freedom," she told the AP.
Memorial was founded in the Soviet Union in 1987 to ensure the victims of communist repression would be remembered. It has continued to compile information on human rights abuses and tracked the fate of political prisoners in Russia. The country's highest court ordered it shut down in December, the latest move in a relentless crackdown on rights activists, independent media and opposition supporters.
Tatyana Glushkova, a board member of the Memorial Human Rights Defense Center, said she learned about the award from the news. "It was a shock," she told the AP. "We are very, very happy."
"For us, this is a sign that our work, whether it is recognized by the Russian authorities or not, it is important for the world, it important for people in Russia," Glushkova said.
Glushkova noted that the award was handed to the group on the day when it once again had to appear in court in Moscow -- this time on a case related to its office building in central Moscow.
International Memorial owned the building, but after the group was shut down, it gave the building to one of its affiliate organizations, the Memorial Research and Education Center. Russian authorities are contesting the deal in court, and the Prosecutor General's office filed a motion to invalidate it. Memorial considers the move an attempt to seize the building and hinder the organization's operation.
The Center for Civil Liberties was founded in 2007 to promote human rights and democracy in Ukraine during a period of turmoil in the country.
Following Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February, the group has worked to document Russian war crimes against Ukrainian civilians.
"The center is playing a pioneering role with a view to holding the guilty parties accountable for their crimes," said Reiss-Andersen.
A representative of the center, Volodymyr Yavorskyi, said the award was important for the organization because "for many years we worked in a country that was invisible."
"This is a surprise for us," he told the AP. "But human rights activity is the main weapon against the war."
This year's award follows a tradition of highlighting groups and activists trying to prevent conflicts, alleviate hardship and protect human rights.
Last year's winners have faced a tough time since receiving the prize. Journalists Dmitry Muratov of Russia and Maria Ressa of the Philippines have been fighting for the survival of their news organizations, defying government efforts to silence them
They were honored last year for "their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace."
The prize carries a cash award of 10 million Swedish kronor (nearly $900,000) and will be handed out on Dec. 10. The money comes from a bequest left by the prize's creator, Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel, in 1895.