Conclusions of the expert discussion “Belarusian lawyers and human rights defenders at risk: what can be done?”

The Research Center of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya's Office (OST Research Center) holds weekly online discussions with international and Belarusian experts on Belarus’s pressing matters. On November 11, 2021, we discussed the topic “Belarusian lawyers and human rights defenders at risk: what can be done?”. 

Siarhej Zikratski, an expert on legal affairs, former lawyer defending politically motivated cases in Belarus, Ilya Nuzov, Head of the Eastern Europe and Central Asia Desk, International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Liudmila Kazak, human rights lawyer defending politically motivated cases in Belarus, nominee for the international award Lawyers for Lawyers for IBA shared their visions on the situation with violations of rights of human rights defenders and lawyers, and also provided recommendations for the international stakeholders about needs and support of those who help and defend political prisoners in Belarus. Viktoryia Andrukovich, political analyst and human rights activist, a fellow of the Institute for Foreign Relations e.V.(ifa) (Stuttgart) moderated the discussion. 

In Belarus, every day, there is an increase in the number of political prisoners and trials where politically motivated sentences are issued. The principle of the rule of law de facto does not function. In this situation, for political prisoners, their families, and the entire Belarusian society, those engaged in protecting rights – lawyers and human rights defenders – become particularly important. At the same time, they become a special group under repressions by the authorities. We know about the arrests and persecution of human rights defenders and human rights organizations, cases of revocation of lawyers' licenses, and other forms of pressure against these groups by the Belarusian authorities. 

What is happening to Belarusian human rights defenders and lawyers who work on cases of political prisoners? What support and assistance do they need? How can the international community help in this situation? These questions were discussed during the expert discussion held by the OST Research Center. 

The participants came to the following conclusions:

  • In Belarus, it is a tendency to worsen conditions for lawyers in parallel with public discontent and protests and increase attacks against their independence. 
  • In 2018, FIDH jointly with the World Organization Against Torture (OMCT), the Paris Bar Association, and Human Rights Center “Viasna” published a report “Belarus: control over lawyers threatens human rights”, where they described the situation of lawyers since 2011 when the Law on the bar and advocacy activities in Belarus was adopted in the aftermath of another election fraud (2010). The Law had increased supervision of the internal management of bars by the Ministry of Justice. 
  • During the past 1.5 years, we have once again observed how lawyers who defend political and civic activists became subject to repression. Lawyers of all most publicly known political prisoners, including Viktar Babaryka, Siarhei Tsikhanouski, Maryia Kalesnikava, are losing their licenses. As a result, their clients are at risk of being left without legal assistance at all.    
  • The pressure on lawyers intensified in summer 2020 with personal talks with lawyers. It ended up in the deprivation of lawyers’ licenses and their expulsion from the Bar. The leadership of the Belarusian Bar Association and the representatives of the Ministry of Justice also made public statements that the lawyers shouldn’t be engaged in politics, by which they mean not publicly comment on their clients’ cases. 
  • Starting from autumn 2020, they have expelled about 40 lawyers who defend political prisoners and actively express their opinions. This is a significant amount, while the number of lawyers who deal with political cases is about 150 only. There are no lawyers left who are ready to express their opinion and position on political cases publicly. 
  • Recently, there were amendments to the Law on Advocacy which are increasing control of the Ministry of Justice over the activities of the lawyers. 

Five main changes are:

  1. Candidates to the Council of the Bar should be approved by the Ministry of Justice in advance.
  2. Before taking their Bar examination, lawyers should pass a special traineeship program conducted by trainees approved by the Bar and the Ministry of Justice. 
  3. To become a lawyer, former employees of courts, police, and investigative agencies do not have to pass an exam but only an oral interview with the Commission. 
  4. They’ve eliminated two forms of legal practices previously available for lawyers: individual practice and practice in law firms, now leaving legal consultations/ aid offices (konsultacii in Russian), which are also effectively under the Ministry of Justice’s control the only place for lawyers to work. 
  • The budget of the Bar Association is approved by the Council of the Bar, whose members are supposed to be approved by the Ministry of Justice. 
  • The negative developments towards the legal status of lawyers had the effect of undermining the independence of lawyers, increasing self-censorship, and threatening their ability to work effectively under the constant threat of disbarment. In general, it meant an elimination of the institute of bar as such, which is supposed to serve to protect lawyers’ independence and rights. 
  • The non-democratic government in Belarus has always perceived human rights defenders as enemies, but in 2021 we observe the beginning of a real war against them. The repressions against the human rights movement began immediately after the outbreak of the August-2020 protests, and they are continuing now. A lot of human rights defenders are arrested, many were forced to leave the country. 
  • Despite all these repressions, human rights organizations continue their work which is more important than ever while more people need legal help, more human rights violations need to be documented, more work needs to be done internationally to urge the regime to respect human rights.
  • In the absence of any functioning legal mechanisms within the country, reporting on human rights violations and crimes of the regime remains the highest priority. 
  • Repressions against civil society that resulted in the absence of registered HROs in the country led to the situation where no people and organizations can help people in difficult situations (for instance, with the migrants). 

Recommendations for the international stakeholders

  • The migrant crisis orchestrated by the regime can’t draw attention away from the crisis inside Belarus. Even though it’s one of the regime’s intentions: to create such a crisis to draw attention away from the internal repressions that are taking place. International CSOs should continue to insist on the fact that these symptoms are indicative of what is happening, on the repressions inside the country. The release of political prisoners should remain the top priority. 
  • For the support of their Belarusian colleagues, international CSOs should do diverse advocacy activities: to turn to the UN institutions, to conduct meetings with the EU institutions and other international organizations for them to keep the situation in Belarus on the agenda, to urge them to make resolutions condemning repressions against human rights defenders, lawyers, and other targeted groups. 
  • To put the people responsible for the violations of rights of lawyers and human rights defenders on the sanctions list.
  • To provide international support and watchdogging of the situation with the lawyers and human rights defenders by the international community. To advocate the exclusion of Belarusian legal authorities’ institutions from the international professional organizations (e.g., if Belarusian Bar Association is a member of any international professional associations, it would be a proper step to exclude it).      
  • To consider petitions to the Venice Commission regarding any harmful legislative innovation that is being considered by the authorities. 
  • It is important to turn to foreign bar associations (e.g., the Paris Bar Association) to write letters of support of lawyers who are targeted in Belarus, letters denouncing the persecution of lawyers, or the harmful legal innovations that are being considered or have already been adopted and demanding that the Republican Bar of Belarus express a clear position on how it observes the requirement that the legal profession remains independent in Belarus. 
  • It is difficult under the circumstances, but the possibility to initiate and conduct missions with the representatives of foreign Bars to Belarus to advocate for the end of repressions or legislative change or, at least, to share an experience that would encourage a different outlook. Such missions were created in the past (in 2018, the two missions to Belarus were conducted by FIDH jointly with our Paris Bar Association). 
  • It is essential to continue raising awareness and keeping on the international agenda the question of the persecution of lawyers and human rights defenders. To continue making statements and to engage in bilateral, multilateral meetings with EU, UN, OSCE, Council of Europe, and other institutions. 
  • At the international level, it is necessary to continue to support HROs that are now forced to work in exile, and independent journalists and lawyers expelled from the Bar Association. It is important for the states where human rights defenders are now located to ensure their physical safety, guarantees of non-extradition to Belarus, and the possibility to work and stay legally. 
  • It is very important to continue to insist on the immediate and unconditional release of all human rights defenders, as well as all political prisoners in Belarus. 
  • It is very important to help lawyers expelled from the Bar and who have no opportunity to find a job today. To help them with some experience, with the job opportunities abroad, with education, etc. 

See the full discussion: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HpIEpH0Y320&t=136s.
For questions about the discussion, contact researchcenter@tsikhanouskaya.org.

For the OST position on legal issues, contact Valery Kavaleuski, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s Representative on Foreign Affairs, Head of the Cabinet kavaleuski@tsikhanouskaya.org.

22 November 2021 в 14:28