Joint statement on the repression of lawyers in Belarus
Lawyers for Lawyers has signed a joint statement, alongside 42 other signatories, expressing concern about the ongoing persecution and intimidation of lawyers in Belarus. The statement is an initiative from the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights.
The statement reads as follows:
We undersigned would like to emphasise the fundamental crisis of the rule of law and human rights in Belarus and the intensification of political persecution of members of civil society. The ongoing crisis is emphasized by the recent weeks’ events, which include large-scale sweeping searches throughout the country, “conveyor” unfair trials, unjust sentences.
A renewed practice of prosecuting lawyers and advocates with an active professional and civic position is of our particular concern.
In January 2021, a human rights defender and lawyer Leonid Sudalenko, who for many years has represented the interests of the victims of human rights violations before the UN Human Rights Committee, was detained. During the search, confidential materials of communications with the Committee were seized. Sudalenko was presented with criminal charges of “the organization and preparation of actions that grossly violate public order, and the financing of such activities.”
In early February, human rights defenders and lawyers Syarhei Drazdouski and Aleh Hrableuski, were detained: they represent the Office for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, an organization that initiated the process of ratification by Belarus of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The precise charges are unknown, the lawyers of the detainees were forced to sign a non-disclosure agreement.
Since August 2020, a member of the Coordination Council, lawyer Liliya Vlasova, a personal partner of the VMP Vlasova, Mikhel & Partners Law Office, is facing tax evasion charges.
Sanctions against active lawyers, who defend clients in politically motivated cases or publicly express their opinions, have reached the level of an established administrative practice.
Criminal proceedings against lawyers Maxim Znak and Illia Sallei have been going on for six months (Mr. Salei was transferred under house arrest, Mr. Znak is still detained). Maksim Znak, Illia Sallei were detained and charged with the criminal offence under Art. 361(3) of the Criminal Code of Belarus, namely engaging in “actions aimed at causing harm to the national security of the Republic of Belarus”.
In February 2021, five lawyers were disbarred, apparently for political reasons. In relation to Maksim Konon, Liudmila Kazak, Kanstantsin Mikhel, Mikhail Kirilyuk a decision to terminate the license was made by the Qualification Commission on issues of the Bar within the Ministry of Justice of the Republic of Belarus. The disbarment of Vladimir Sazanchuk was performed by the Minsk Bar Association. It is regrettable that the lawyers’ self-governing bodies became the agents of repressive measures against the very individuals they are supposed to protect and represent.
Liudmila Kazak was disbarred following the administrative penalty under the article 23.4 of the Administrative Code “disobedience to a lawful order of police officers”, while it should be mentioned that she had been subjected to illegal detention in the form of abduction, imprisonment, seizure of documents containing professional confidentiality and administrative fine for an arbitrary arrest. In fact, Ms. Kazak was sanctioned for representing the interests of political activists, including Maria Kolesnikova (becoming her fourth lawyer to be prosecuted).
Maksim Konon was disbarred because he was previously sentenced to an administrative detention for participating in the protest in the city of Braslav. Mr. Konon did not even take part in the protest and he connects the disbarremet with him representing victims of torture, journalists, and his open public position as regards the lack of state investigation of the violence.
Mr. Konon was detained and sent to serve an administrative arrest when he was walking to meet his client, the journalist Yekaterina Borisevich, an accused in the high-profile political case “Zero ppm”.
Kanstantsin Mikhel was disbarred for participating in the protest, even though he was detained near his home.
Mikhail Kirilyuk, a member of the Coordination council, was disbarred for his “inappropriate statements about the authorities’.
Vladimir Sazanchuk was the defence council for an opposition politician Mikalai Statkevich and a video blogger Dmitry Kazlou. Previously, Mr. Sazanchuk publicly criticized the authorities for putting multiple obstacles to lawyers in performing their professional duties and refused to give a written non-disclosure.
The requirement from lawyers to sign nondisclosure agreements in almost all politically motivated criminal cases has become a practice of pressure and obstruction to the performance of the lawyers’ professional activities in Belarus, along with a de facto censorship imposed and supported by the Belarusian Republican Bar Association – as evidenced by numerous official letters and positions.
In October, 2020 Yulia Levanchuk and Aliaksandr Pylchanka were disbarred by the Ministry of Justice. Mrs. Levanchuk lost her license after a public statement on behalf of her client about torture, even though the disbarment was grounded on other reasons.
Mr. Pylchanka was disbarred for an interview in which he openly spoke about the violence by representatives of law enforcement bodies: his statements were regarded by the Ministry of Justice as “an action discrediting the lawyer and the legal profession.” On 26 February, Aliaksandr Pylchanka’s appeal on the disbarment was dismissed by Minsk City Court, setting a precedent for the revocation of a lawyer’s license for expressing their legal opinion ”.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights emphasized in the report on the situation in Belarus the problems related to the exercise of the right to defense in the context of the rights of lawyers: “In Belarus, lawyers working with politically sensitive cases or cases of human rights violations were subjected to pressure, harassment and intimidation for carrying out their professional activities. They are threatened with disbursement or disciplinary sanctions by the bar associations that taking the sessions under the Ministry of Justice exercises control. ”
We recall that Principle 16 of the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers (1990) requires governments to ensure that lawyers are able to perform all of their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference and that they “shall not suffer, or be threatened with, prosecution or administrative, economic or other sanctions for any action taken in accordance with recognized professional duties, standards and ethics”. Further, Principle 17 states that when lawyers security is threatened, they shall be adequately safeguarded by the authorities.
We demand the Government of Belarus: to stop persecution and intimidation of lawyers, immediately release Maksim Znak, Illia Salei, Leonid Sudalenko, Aleh Hrableuski and Syarhei Drazdouski and to drop all administrative and criminal charges against them, as well as against Liliya Vlasova, Liudmila Kazak and other lawyers.
We demand the authorities to ensure that all conditions are met for lawyers to fulfill their professional duties without intimidation, hindrance or harassment and unlawful interference.
We also request to reinstate the lawyers’ licenses of Aliaksandr Pylchanka, Yulia Levanchuk, Maksim Konon, Liudmila Kazak, Kanstantsin Mikhel, Mikhail Kirilyuk and Vladimir Sazanchuk.
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