Belarus crackdown targets not just political activists but also their lawyers

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FILE Ales Bialiatski, the head of Belarusian Vyasna rights group, sits in a defendants' cage during a court session in Minsk, Belarus, on Thursday Jan. 5, 2023. For nearly three years, a harsh crackdown on dissent in Belarus by its authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko has filled the countrys penal colonies with thousands of political prisoners, with new arrests reported daily. At the same time, a government campaign has gotten rid of many independent lawyers, making it difficult for the detainees to mount any kind of legal defense. (Vitaly Pivovarchyk/BelTA Pool Photo via AP, File)

TALLINN – For nearly three years, a harsh crackdown on dissent in Belarus by its authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko has filled the country's penal colonies with thousands of political prisoners, with new arrests reported daily.

At the same time, a government campaign has gotten rid of many independent lawyers, making it increasingly difficult for the detainees to mount any kind of legal defense.

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Siarhej Zikratski is among those lawyers forced to leave Belarus under the threat of arrest. More than 500 of his colleagues have been stripped of their law licenses and quit the profession since 2020, and many of them have moved abroad after facing reprisals at home. Some even ended up in prison.

Zikratski says Belarus has effectively run out of independent lawyers to represent the many political prisoners in the country of 9.5 million people, a situation he calls “catastrophic.”

Lawyers are reluctant to take on "politically motivated cases, and even those who already have signed contracts with clients are no longer willing to provide them with legal services,” Zikratski told The Associated Press by phone from a Western country. “Chances of finding a lawyer for a political prisoner in Belarus are now close to zero.”

The demand for lawyers is outstripping the supply, with repressions escalating and the number of political prisoners growing, he said, "but there is no one to defend them.”

The sweeping crackdown began after Lukashenko, who has run Belarus with an iron fist for 29 years, won reelection in August 2020 in a presidential election that was widely seen at home and in the West as fraudulent.

The country was swept by massive protests, some of which drew more than 100,000 people. Authorities responded with a brutal crackdown that saw over 35,000 people arrested, thousands beaten by police while in custody, and dozens of nongovernmental organizations and independent media shut down.

The number of lawyers in Belarus has dropped from about 2,200 in 2020 to about 1,650 this year, the Justice Ministry said.

Zikratski said authorities have created a system in which only lawyers who are loyal to the government are allowed to represent political prisoners.

“It profanes the very idea of legal defense, and political prisoners aren’t only deprived of the right for legal assistance but can’t even report on torturous conditions behind bars,” he said.

In the Belarusian legal system, where convictions are a near certainty once charges are filed against a defendant, independent lawyers still serve an important function. They ensure, for example, that a case is not rushed to a conclusion and that legal procedures are followed, and they serve as important conduits between detainees and their families.

In a recent speech, Lukashenko has bluntly declared that defense lawyers “must be under control.”

“A defense lawyer is a public servant and his actions must be based on legal norms and not some imaginary norms like freedom of speech and other freedoms," he said. "We have had enough of those freedoms.”

Eight prominent lawyers who defended political prisoners are serving long sentences on what are seen as trumped-up charges, including attorney Maksim Znak, who represented a presidential hopeful and got 10 years on charges of involvement in an extremist group, conspiracy to seize power and calls for actions against national security. Aliaksandr Danilevicz, who spoke against Russia's war in Ukraine and defended Belarusian athletes who supported protests, got the same sentence on charges of hurting national security and aiding extremist activities.

Human rights activist Ales Bialiatski, who won the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize, is serving 10 years after being convicted of financing actions that violated the public order and smuggling — charges he rejects. His defense lawyer, Vital Brahinets, got an eight-year sentence for inciting actions against national security, and another of his lawyers was stripped of his law license.

Bialiatski’s wife, Natalia Pinchuk, now won't even identify his last remaining lawyer for fear of losing him.

She said she's “desperate” because she hasn’t heard from her husband since May, when he was moved to a notoriously brutal maximum-security prison and has been denied access to a lawyer.

Pinchuk said she had received information via other prisoners that authorities have denied Bialiatski even a pen and paper to request access to a lawyer.

“They are keeping him in tight information blackout and creating unbearable conditions to demonstrate that even a Nobel Prize laureate could be deprived of everything, including an opportunity to meet with a lawyer,” she told AP. “The authorities have learned how to use lawyers as an instrument of manipulation and pressure.”

Recent letters from the 60-year-old Bialiatski said his health — particularly his eyesight — has deteriorated, Pinchuk said, adding it’s impossible to assess his condition without a lawyer.

“The authorities have realized that lawyers tell journalists and international organizations about violations and torturous conditions in Belarusian prisons for political prisoners,” she said. “Lawyers know better than anyone else that confinement in Belarusian prisons seriously undermines inmates’ health.”

There's been no word for over 100 days about opposition leader Nikolai Statkevich, who is serving a 14-year prison term, and Maria Kolesnikova, who got an 11-year term. Likewise, the condition of Viktar Babaryka, an aspiring presidential candidate serving 14 years, hasn’t been known for over a month, and his supporters suspect he was beaten and put in a prison hospital.

Pinchuk belives the United Nations should intervene to help “rupture the information blackout around Belarusian political prisoners.”

“It would be great if the U.N. properly used all the instruments it has,” she said. “Regrettably, we have recently seen that despite the terror in Belarus, the U.N. often has turned a blind eye to the situation.”

Authorities have banned the activities of private law firms, and all defense lawyers were made part of state associations that are tightly overseen by the Justice Ministry. It appoints the heads of such associations.

By law, authorities appoint a state defense lawyer for a defendant who can’t find his own representation. State lawyers usually side with investigators instead of their clients.

Volha Vysotskaya, who was charged with inciting tensions, said she tried to contact a state lawyer for her trial so she could see documents pertaining to her case, "but he not only has refused to talk to me but switched off his phone and blocked me on all messaging apps.”

The 24-year-old fled the country before her trial began, and she was convicted in absentia and sentenced to 12 years.

“Defense lawyers in Belarus have become an instrument of government repression instead of defense, and it’s not even clear what is worse -– a lack of a defense during a trial or a formal presence of a lawyer legitimizing the verdict,” Vysotskaya said.

Opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who challenged Lukashenko in the 2020 election and was pressured to flee Belarus after the vote, was put on trial in absentia and convicted of extremism, high treason and threatening state security. She was sentenced to 15 years.

She said she was unable to read materials of her case and talk to a state lawyer appointed to represent her.

She ran for president after her husband, Siarhei Tsikhanouski, a popular blogger and activist, was arrested days after declaring his candidacy. He was convicted of organizing mass unrest, inciting hatred and disobeying police, and sentenced to 19 1/2 years.

Tsikhanouskaya told AP that her husband has been held “in torturous conditions" without access to a lawyer, and that she hasn’t heard from him for over three months.

Citing the traditional depictions of the Greek goddess of justice as blindfolded, the opposition leader said Lukashenko has added "a gag in her mouth and earplugs.”

Last month, hundreds of lawyers who fled the country established the Belarusian Association of Human Rights Lawyers, and urged the U.N. to act.

“Belarus has approved legislation that violates the very principles and essence of legal defense and applied the practice of total control over lawyers,” the association said. “The repressions have destroyed procedural and professional guarantees for lawyers’ activities, resulting in the effective destruction of legal defense in the country.”

Zikratski said his former homeland has reached a “terrible moment.”

“Belarus is quickly turning into a concentration camp in the middle of Europe,” he said. “Repressions in Belarus are escalating and the country has run out of lawyers, the consequences of which aren’t difficult to predict.”

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