Belarus: Suppression of independent lawyers has intensified. Is there a Solution?
October 9, 2023 – On the sidelines of the Warsaw Human Dimension Conference, Lawyers for Lawyers, co-hosted a side event on Belarussian Lawyers. The event served to elaborate on the plight of the legal profession in Belarus, to introduce the Belarusian Association of Human Rights Lawyers (BAHRL), a new voice of the legal profession in Belarus, and to discuss opportunities to overcome the current challenges.
Belarusian lawyer Natalia Matskevich moderated the panel. In her opening remarks she provided an overview of the difficulties Belarusian lawyers have been facing since the presidential elections in 2010 and the context in which this happens. The rule of law crisis in Belarus and the situation of its lawyers has reached rock bottom following the 2020 presidential elections.
Lawyers are Arbitrarily Arrested, Convicted, Disbarred, and Disciplinary Sanctioned
As of today, six lawyers are detained for simply doing their job, facing long terms in prison: Maksim Znak, Aliaksandr Danilevich, Vital Brahinets, Anastasiya Lazarenka, Yulia Yurhilevich, and Aliaksei Barodka. Many more lawyers were arrested and persecuted on fabricated charges and subsequently deprived from their licenses to practice law. They were accused of ‘discrediting the legal profession’, ‘misconduct incompatible with the lawyer’s title’ or ‘disseminating extremist materials’, without cause and without having the chance to defend themselves. Several lawyers were forced to flee their country to avoid persecution.
Lawyers who are still practicing law in the country are severely hindered in carrying out their professional tasks. They are not allowed to visit their clients in prison. They are not allowed to share any information about the cases they are dealing with, and they continuously face the risk of being accused of unspecified alleged wrongdoings for actions taken in accordance with recognized professional duties, standards, and ethics.
Legal Profession under State Control – Belarusian Bar Association Has Become Tool of Suppression
The legal profession is more and more controlled by the State. In 2021, the Law on the Bar and Legal Advocacy was changed and all lawyers applying for licenses must now be approved in advance by the Ministry of Justice. The ministry is also exercising broad control over the Belarusian National Bar Association. Instead of playing a vital role in protecting their members from persecution and infringements, the Bar Association has become a tool of suppression: Lawyers are now disbarred and disciplinary sanctioned by their own Bar Association on groundless accusations. From 2020 to August 2023, more than 130 lawyers in Belarus were expelled from the legal profession.
Self-censorship and No Right to Defense
As a result, lawyers refuse to take up sensitive cases out of fear to become a target themselves or to lose their jobs. Others have left the legal profession altogether. In the last three years, the number of lawyers in Belarus has dropped by nearly 600, which amounts to roughly a quarter of all Belarusian lawyers nationwide. This number includes the more than 130 lawyers who were expelled from the legal profession.
Amidst these circumstances, family members of political prisoners and detained human rights lawyers have stopped looking for an attorney, depriving them of the right to independent counsel. Consequently, this also undermines the right to effective access to justice for all.
Creation of New Association to Represent Belarusian Lawyers Worldwide
The founders of the Belarusian Association of Human Rights Lawyers (BAHRL), Belarusian lawyers in exile, want to offer a legitimate alternative for the dysfunctioning professional bar association in their country. BARLH president Maryia Kolesava-Hudzilina explained her organization’s mission and activities. BAHRL wants to support their colleague-lawyers in Belarus and the family members of detained lawyers. They also want to support Belarusian lawyers in exile to overcome practical issues and enable them to continue their work as human rights lawyers in their countries of residence.
BAHRL is also preparing for a new future. The association has the ambition to restore the independent functioning of the legal profession in their country, amongst others, by creating expert groups and providing expertise to Belarusian lawyers on developing concepts and draft laws for a democratic Belarus.
There was broad consensus that Belarusian lawyers and BARHL also need the support of the international community to overcome the current challenges. When asked by the panellists what international lawyers’ organizations can do, Lawyers for Lawyers’ representative Judith Lichtenberg told the audience that Lawyers for Lawyers will continue to raise international attention for the situation of lawyers in Belarus, amongst others by issuing statements, writing reports, and raising their issues before international bodies such as the UN, the Council of Europe, the EU and the OSCE.
Lawyers for Lawyers will also continue to single out the position of Belarussian lawyers who are in prison or under threat, for example through its #Free Lawyers’ campaigns and the Lawyers for Lawyers Award which was granted to Belarussian lawyers Liudmila Kazak and Maksim Znak in 2021 and to support the work of BAHRL. In doing so, Lawyers for Lawyers will always closely collaborate and coordinate with other international organisations working towards the same goals, such as the ABA’s Center for Human Rights and the other organisations co-hosting today’s side-event.
“There is a strength in numbers and combining international expertise and relationships will increase the impact of international solidarity.” Judith Lichtenberg, Lawyers for Lawyers
Lawyers for Lawyers (L4L) co-hosted the event together with the Belarusian Association of Human Rights Lawyers (BAHRL), the American Bar Association’s Center for Human Rights, the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, the Council of Bars and Law Societies in Europe (CCBE), the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) and the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI).
What can you do to support Belarussian Lawyers?
One thing you can do to support Belarussian lawyers is to buy Maksim Znak’s book “The Zekameron” that he wrote in prison. The book is available on various webshops (for example, bol.com, Scotland Street Press, Amazon) and the proceeds of his book will go to his family.
During the conference, there was an art exhibition with images of politically imprisoned lawyers organized by the Belarusian Association of Human Rights Lawyers. Representatives of dozens of countries could not only hear, and read the names and stories of Belarusian lawyers deprived of liberty, but also see portraits of Maksim Znak, Aliaksandr Danilevich, Yuliya Yurhilevich, Vital Brahinets, Anastasiya Lazarenka, and Aliaksei Barodka. (Author Y. Pesenka-Hramatneva). Images of the portraits are available through WeTransfer.
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