WARSAW, Aug. 23 (Reuters) – Belarusian lawyer Mikhail Kirilyuk said he received a disturbing text in October from an acquaintance linked to the country’s security services.
The acquaintance urged Kirilyuk, who had defended anti-government protesters and publicly criticized President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime, to leave the country. According to Kirilyuk, who said the text was sent via an encrypted messaging app and described its contents to Reuters, the message also contained a warning: the lawyer could be arrested and withdraw his license to practice. law.
Kirilyuk left that month with his parents and young children for Poland, which has long criticized Lukashenko. In February, the Justice Ministry revoked Kirilyuk’s license, according to a document from the April Minsk court relating to his unsuccessful appeal. The ministry said in a February press release that Kirilyuk had made “unacceptable” public statements containing “rude” and “tactless” comments about state officials, without identifying them.
Speaking to Reuters from Warsaw, Kirilyuk, 38, said he believed the action against him was politically motivated because of who he had represented and his critical public comments. He said he left because he “did not want to be arrested” and that he would not return home until Lukashenko left office.
Kirilyuk’s account fits with what more than half a dozen Belarusian lawyers as well as international organizations representing the profession and human rights groups say is a model of intimidation and repression of lawyers by Belarusian authorities. These actions include criminal and disciplinary proceedings against lawyers and expungement, they say.
Seven lawyers interviewed by Reuters say their licenses were withdrawn after defending protesters, denouncing authorities or resisting what they called pressure on their profession. Several of them allege that the authorities monitored clients’ confidential meetings or hindered their work. Reuters was unable to independently corroborate their claims or the text message described by Kirilyuk.
Lukashenko’s office did not respond to requests for comment. The president said in March that it was necessary to “put things in order” in the legal profession, according to comments published in state media Belarus Today.
The Justice Department, in response to questions from Reuters, said its oversight of the legal profession is carried out in accordance with “the principle of independent advocacy and non-interference in the professional activities of lawyers.”
He said that the statements of lawyers struck off the bar about the persecution of the profession and the interference of the Ministry of Justice “are not supported by facts and documents, are unfounded and are based on the statements of the offenders themselves. -same “.
The ministry said it had the power to terminate legal licenses under circumstances provided by law. He added that the decisions to terminate the licenses of a number of attorneys this year were due to their “gross violations of licensing laws”, license requirements and conditions, or engaged in conduct that “discredited” the legal profession. He did not name the lawyers, but said he included those interviewed by Reuters in his questions.
Authorities in this former Soviet state have waged a massive crackdown on dissent since last August, when the long-time president declared himself the winner in an election that many Western countries deemed fraudulent. Targets have included opposition politicians, activists and the media. In an episode that shocked the West, a plane flying over Belarus was grounded in May and a dissident journalist on board was arrested.
On August 9, the first anniversary of the contested elections, Lukashenko said he won the vote fairly and saved Belarus from a violent uprising. At a press conference in the capital Minsk, the president said that an Olympian sprinter, who defected to Poland at the Tokyo Olympics, had been “manipulated” by outside forces.
At least 23 Belarusian lawyers have been struck off the bar since last summer, according to the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), a non-governmental organization based in Paris. The federation said Belarus had in the past used retaliatory measures against lawyers; what is new, according to FIDH, is “the extent of the repression” and that it now includes criminal proceedings.
The removal of all the lawyers identified by FIDH, with the exception of one, was confirmed by statements on the website of the Ministry of Justice or by the official Belta press agency. The other lawyer confirmed to Reuters that their license had been revoked.
This figure includes three lawyers who the Justice Department said on August 11 that they had been struck off the bar because they had performed their professional obligations “inappropriately” and had displayed “an unsatisfactory level of knowledge. of the legislation necessary to carry out advocacy work ”.
A new law approved in June by Lukashenko, 66, stipulates, among other things, that only candidates approved by the Justice Ministry can practice law, which some lawyers say is intended to control their profession.
Until now, bars have chosen trainees for compulsory internships and all applicants have to pass the bar exam before becoming a lawyer. Under the new law, the Ministry of Justice coordinates the composition of trainees and persons who have served as members of the police or other investigative bodies, if appointed by their respective public institutions, only need a three-month internship and an oral exam to become a lawyer.
Justice Minister Oleg Slizhevsky said the aim of the new law, which will come into force at the end of this year, is to raise the quality of legal professionals and improve their advocacy.
Mass street protests have swept Belarus after Lukashenko claimed victory in the presidential elections last summer. The unrest has been the biggest challenge to his reign since taking office in 1994. Authorities have responded with sometimes violent crackdown on protesters; many political opponents have been arrested or gone into exile. The response prompted Western sanctions.
Belarusian authorities have described the actions of law enforcement as appropriate and necessary.
A key moment for some lawyers and rights activists was the September arrests of lawyers Maxim Znak and Illia Salei. They represented Maria Kolesnikova, one of the leaders of the street demonstrations.
Earlier this month, Znak and Kolesnikova were tried on criminal charges of extremism and attempted seizure of power. Both deny the charges.
Authorities accused lawyer Salei of making public calls to action to harm national security. Salei, who denies committing wrongdoing, is on bail while the investigation continues, according to his father, who is acting as his lawyer.
Two other lawyers representing the leader of the protest Kolesnikova were struck off.
Siarhej Zikratski, a lawyer for Znak, lost his license in March after appearing before a panel established by the Justice Department to review aspiring lawyers who can rule on the expungement of existing lawyers.
Zikratski said the panel is compiling information on the lawyers’ media interviews, social media posts and petitions they signed. The lawyer added that during his appearance before the panel, the latter had questioned him about the interviews he had given to the media and about specific parts of the Belarusian legal code.
“We discussed why I gave media interviews and why I was not allowed to speak,” Zikratski told Reuters in June from his current base, the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius. He now represents the exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.
“PEOPLE WERE SCARED”
The United Nations has said Belarusian lawyers handling politically sensitive human rights cases have been harassed and intimidated. In a May report, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Belarus said interference in the work of lawyers was “systemic” and lawyers were often denied access to their clients and risked being expelled, detained or arrested.
Belarus, in response to a UN resolution citing the May report, said UN decisions have long “failed to reflect the real human rights situation in the world” and “serve as a a pretext for pressure and sanctions from the collective West against states that do not obey its dictates. “
Kirilyuk specialized in commercial law. But after security forces began detaining people during the mass protests, he and other lawyers faced a deluge of inquiries from people seeking legal aid, he said. declared. “We were getting 10, 20, 30 or 50 calls a day because people were scared. They had been tortured in prison and did not know what to do, ”Kirilyuk said.
Kirilyuk said he took charge of cases related to the protests, including that of Yelena Leuchanka, a Belarusian basketball star detained by authorities after participating in protests calling for Lukashenko’s resignation. Leuchanka was sentenced in September to 15 days in prison for participating in protests demanding the president’s resignation.
Kirilyuk said the police refused to tell him where Leuchanka was being held; he and his colleagues had to tour police stations before finding her in a detention center in Minsk. The lawyer said he was initially denied access to his client and then only had 10 minutes with her before her court appearance.
Reuters was unable to independently confirm Kirilyuk’s claims about torture or the details of Leuchanka’s case.
The Home Office, which oversees police, referred questions for comment to the Foreign Office. The Foreign Office did not respond to a request for comment.
During a visit to another client in custody in August last year, Kirilyuk said he noticed a camera during what was supposed to be a confidential meeting. When the attorney’s COVID-19 mask slipped under his nose, a phone in the room rang and when he answered a voice told him to put it back on, Kirilyuk said.
Such tactics, he said, have a chilling effect. “It’s such an easy way to show you that ‘we hear you, we watch you and everything you say to your client is on camera,” “Kirilyuk said.
Reporting by Joanna Plucinska in Warsaw, Matthias Williams in Kiev and Andrius Sytas in Vilnius; additional reporting by Natalia Zinets in Kiev, Dmitriy Turlyun in Moscow and Robert Muller in Prague; written by Matthias Williams and Andrew Osborn Editing by Cassell Bryan-Low
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