Harassment and intimidation of lawyers is of great concern and must end
The International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) has expressed grave concern over ongoing attacks and intimidation tactics deployed against lawyers in Belarus for carrying out their professional roles.
With hundreds of citizens detained by security forces in Belarus following the disputed 9 August presidential election – which the incumbent president, Alexander Lukashenko, claims to have won by a landslide – many lawyers, including Aliaksandr Pylchanka, Yulia Levanchuk, Maxim Znak, Lyudmila Kazak,Ilya Salei and Liliya Vlasova, are facing disbarment and/or detention for their work with opposition figures and other arrested citizens.
The IBAHRI reminds the Belarusian authorities that Principle 16 of the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers states that governments shall ensure that lawyers are able to perform all of their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference, and shall not suffer, or be threatened with, prosecution or administrative, economic or other sanctions for any action taken in accordance with recognised professional duties, standards and ethics.
IBAHRI Co-Chair and former Justice of the High Court of Australia (1996–2006), the Hon Michael Kirby AC CMG, commented: ‘The IBAHRI calls on the authorities of Belarus to halt all forms of intimidation directed at legal professionals. Further, we urge the Ministry of Justice to reverse disbarments and refrain from imposing future ones on lawyers who, in their professional capacities, represent opposition figures and protestors. Also, we note that as required by international principles and standards, the government should not be making decisions on disbarring lawyers, or related licensing issues – such matters should be the prerogative of an independent legal profession and judicial system. Therefore, we call on the authorities of Belarus to introduce adequate protection for the integrity and independence of lawyers.’
Mr Kirby added: ‘Lawyers are fundamental to any democratic nation. Indeed, a measure of the strength, or fragility, of a nation’s democracy is whether there exists a strong and independent legal profession and judiciary. Similarly, adherence to the rule of law and respect for human rights obligations are of equal importance. We urge the Belarusian authorities to refrain from acts that violate these international standards.’
The Belarusian government’s continued infringement on the exercise of the legal profession in Belarus is of increasing concern to the IBAHRI. Not only inconsistent with international requirements, it further weakens the legal profession and erodes the rule of law.
On 15 October 2020, the Ministry of Justice of the Republic of Belarus suspended Mr Pylchanka and Ms Levanchuk’s licences to practice law. Both lawyers plan to appeal the decisions.
Mr Pylchanka was the lawyer for detained opposition leaders Viktar Babaryka and Maria Kalesnikava. The Ministry of Justice said that its Qualification Commission on issues relating to the legal profession in the Republic of Belarus gave the reason for suspending Mr Pylchanka’s licence as making comments in the media that ‘discredit the title of lawyer and the legal profession’.
Ms Levanchuk acted as the lawyer of Maksim Kharoshyn, the owner of a flower shop in Minsk, who handed out flowers to protesters and is reported to have been detained by security forces on 13 October and severely beaten, resulting in paramedics having to take him to hospital by ambulance.
Mr Znak, prior to being detained, was representing now jailed Viktor Babariko and Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. The former sought to run for President of the Republic of Belarus, but was not allowed to register as a candidate, and the latter was a presidential candidate now self-exiled in Lithuania.
Ms Kazak, was arbitrarily detained on September 24 in the centre of Minsk. On the same day a court decision found her guilty of disobeying the demands of police officers and levied a fine of 675 roubles. Ms Kazak was the lawyer of Maria Kolesnikova, a protest organiser and a member of the Presidium of the Coordination Council – an independent entity established by civil society to organise a peaceful transfer of power from the incumbent president Alexander Lukashenko to a transitional government.
Mr Salei was another lawyer for Maria Kolesnikova. On 16 October 2020, a decision altered the measure of his restraint from detention to house arrest. Under this new confinement he is prohibited from leaving his house, banned from using the telephone and Internet, and can be subjected to random house checks by the police and monitoring.
The lawyer Ms Vlasova, a fellow member of the Presidium of the Coordination Council, was arbitrarily detained on 31 August, following a search of her house by police from the financial-crimes unit. The search was purportedly carried out in relation to an investigation of alleged tax violations. She was released on 19 October 2020.
IBAHRI Co-Chair and immediate past Secretary-General of the Swedish Bar Association, Anne Ramberg Dr jur hc, commented: ‘It is quite clear that systematic abuse is being directed at the legal profession in Belarus. In a legitimate democracy, the country’s lawyers are not arbitrarily detained, intimidated, harassed, or disbarred for having clients who happen to be political figures in the opposition camp. Placing pressure on lawyers with the objective of deterring peers from taking such cases, and thereby reducing protection for some sectors of society, is wholly unacceptable. Amid a general strike, growing public opposition, widespread international criticism, isolation and European Union imposed sanctions, we urge Belarus to respect the human rights instruments to which it is party and the rule of law.’