Crackdown on Human Rights Lawyers in Belarus continues

October 27, 2021
Gennady Fedunych (left) and Natalia Matskevich (right) at the trial in Minsk, Belarus.
Gennady Fedunych (left) and Natalia Matskevich (right) at the trial in Minsk, Belarus. © Human Rights Center Viasna 2018

Anastasiia Zlobina, Assistant Researcher for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch reports that on 25 October 2021, the Minsk Bar Association disbarred prominent Belarusian defense lawyer Natalia Matskevich, the latest in a wide-raging and politically motivated crackdown on lawyers.

Matskevich is one of four lawyers who represented Viktar Babaryka, former presidential contender arrested on politically motivated charges in June 2020 in the run-up to the August 9 election. In July 2021, Supreme Court sentenced Babaryka to 14 years in prison for “grand bribery” and “laundering of illicit funds.”

On October 20, the Justice Ministry suspended the license of Evgeni Pylchenka, a lawyer who also represented Babaryka, pending the outcome of a disciplinary case against him. Matskevich’s disbarment and Pylchenka’s suspension came soon after they had filed an appeal in Babaryka’s case. Their colleagues said these sanctions were “absurd” and based on “ridiculous” allegations, including “some [supposedly] incorrectly worded questions to witnesses during trial.” 

In July, days after Babaryka’s verdict, authorities stripped his then-lawyer Dmitry Layevsky of his attorney’s license, citing “inappropriate comments about the work of his colleagues.” Prior to his disbarment, Layevsky had faced pressure from the authorities and the Minsk Bar Association.

In October 2020, the Justice Ministry terminated the license of Aliaksandr Pylchenka, another prominent member of Babaryka’s defense team, over supposed “incompetent comments to mass media”

According to Layevsky, Matskevich and Evgeny Pylchenka became “irreplaceable” in Babaryka’s case due to their detailed knowledge of the voluminous case as well as Babaryka’s trust in them.

Since August 2020, Belarusian authorities have been turning up the pressure on lawyers for publicly speaking out about human rights violations and in defense of clients in politically motivated cases. In addition to the obstruction of their work, lawyers have faced personal harassment such as threats, arbitrary detention, raids, revoked licenses, and administrative and criminal charges.

The Belarusian National Bar Association and its regional bars have continuously failed to protect their members.

At least 27 lawyers have already been banned or suspended in reprisal for speaking out against the recent wave of repressions in Belarus. See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2021/09/10/two-lawyers-from-belarus-share-lawyers-for-lawyers-award-2021/

In November, new restrictive amendments will enter into force, further increasing the Ministry of Justice’s authority over, and eviscerating the independence of, Belarusian lawyers. The arbitrary suspension and disbarment of Belarusian lawyers doesn’t just rob them of their ability to practice their profession, but undermines their clients’ right to legal counsel, and sends a chilling message of intimidation to their colleagues.

On October 26, the Belarusian human rights community issued a joint statement on their recognising another 12 persons as political prisoners, HRC Viasna reported. As of October 26, there are 833 political prisoners in Belarus on this list.

The updated list includes:

  • Syarhei Prus and Dzmitry Bondarau, who were sentenced under Part 3 of Article 130 of the Criminal Code to 5 years in a penal colony for creating and posting online a video calling for illegal actions against riot police officers of the Mahilioŭ regional department of internal affairs;
  • Dzmitry Sonchyk, who was sentenced under Art. 364 and Art. 369 of the Criminal Code to 5 years of imprisonment in a penal colony for insults and threats to police officers in comments in a Telegram channel in 2020 and 2021;
  • Andrey Razuvayeu , who was sentenced under Article 369 and 295 of the Criminal Code to 4 years in a penal colony for insulting a government official and keeping a small amount of hunting gunpowder;
  • Iryna Melkher, Anton Melkher, Halina Dzerbysh, Syarhei Razanovich, Lyubou Razanovich, Pavel Razanovich, who have been in custody on terrorism charges since early December 2020. According to the human rights defenders, they have not participated in any investigative actions, while the investigation is not formally completed, and the state propaganda resources back in 2020 claimed that the guilt and role of all those involved in the case was ‘established and proven’;
  • former investigator Yauhen Yushkevich. The circumstances of the new accusation of terrorism give grounds to believe that his detention may be arbitrary and related to his public activities, human rights activists stress;
  • Yauhen Buynitski, who was detained on charges under Part 3 of Art. 371 of the Criminal Code for organizing illegal border crossing by citizens fleeing arbitrary politically motivated persecution by the Belarusian authorities, which could have serious consequences for them – torture, cruel, inhuman, degrading treatment and illegal imprisonment.

https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/10/26/belarusian-authorities-retaliate-against-lawyers-defending-human-rights

One Response to “Crackdown on Human Rights Lawyers in Belarus continues”


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