Lawyers who have represented Belarusian opposition leaders are subject to persecution
14 april 2021

Lawyers who have represented Belarusian opposition leaders are subject to persecution

Belarus

Lawyers for Lawyers is concerned about the situation of the lawyers Maxim Znak, Ilya Salei, Alexander Pylchenko, Liudmila Kazak and Siarhei Zikratski. These lawyers have represented  leaders of the democratic movement in Belarus and are believed to be the subject of persecution in connection to their professional activities.

Maxim Znak represented Viktor Babariko, a potential candidate in the presidential elections, who was not allowed to formally register. He has also provided legal assistance to Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a former candidate for the presidency who is now in exile and Maria Kolesnikova, Coordination Council co-leader. According to our information, Maxim Znak was arrested in September 2020 for allegedly having committed the offence of “calls to actions seeking to undermine national security”. In February 2021 additional charges were added including conspiracy to seize state power and organising extremism. Znak denies all the charges and is still being held in pre-trial detention, which was recently extended to 9 May, 2021. At the time of his detention, Mr. Znak was widely regarded as the last active member of the Coordination Council in his capacity of member of the Presidium of the Coordination Council.

Ilya Salei also represented Maria Kolesnikova and was also arrested on 9 September 2020 and subsequently charged with the same offences under the Belarusian Criminal Code as Znak. On 17 October, 2021 remand in custody was replaced with house arrest which has been extended to 16 April, 2021.

Alexander Pylchenko has represented both Viktor Babariko and Maria Kolesnikova. On 16 October, 2021 he was disbarred by the Qualification Commission for legal practice in the Republic of Belarus (Qualification Commission). The decision to do so relied on Pylchenko’s public criticism of the response of law-enforcement authorities in Belarus to claims of ill-treatment of prisoners. On 26 February, 2021 Pylchenko’s appeal against disbarment was dismissed.

Liudmila Kazak, another of Maria Kolesnikova’s lawyers, was originally arrested in September 2020 and charged with a breach of article 23.4 of the Belarus Administrative Code, namely “disobedience to a lawful order of police officers”. On 19 February 2021, the Qualification Commission decided to deprive Kazak of her license to practice law. According to our information the penalty she received was the ground for her disbarment.

Siarhei Zikratski has represented Maxim Znak, as well as the journalist Katsiaryna Andreyeva. We have been informed that he was disbarred on 24 March 2021.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights stated in her recent report on the situation of human rights in Belarus: “In Belarus, lawyers defending politically sensitive cases or cases involving human rights violations have been under pressure, harassed and intimidated for exercising their professional activities. They face disbarment or disciplinary sanctions by the Bar Association, which lacks independence and over which the Ministry of Justice exercises broad control.

Lawyers play a vital role in the protection of the rule of law and human rights. It is the responsibility of lawyers to defend the rights of citizens from whatever quarter they may be threatened. Their work is indispensable for ensuring effective access to justice for all. To fulfil their professional duties effectively, lawyers should be able to practise law independently in accordance with recognised laws, standards and ethics.They should be free from improper interference, any fear of reprisals, or unreasonable restrictions.

In accordance with the United Nations Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers, governments must 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.”

In addition, lawyers must not be identified with their clients or their clients’ causes as a result of discharging their functions, and have the right like any other individual, to freedom of expression and to take part in public discussion of matters concerning the law, the administration of justice, and the promotion and protection of human rights.

In view of the above, Lawyers for Lawyers calls upon the Belarus authorities to cease all persecution and intimidation of lawyers in Belarus who work on cases involving human rights violations or politically-sensitive cases, to immediately release Maxim Znak from detention, lift the house arrest of Ilya Salei, and to restore the licences of Alexander Pylchenko, Liudmila Kazak, and Siarhei Zikratski.

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