WARSAW, August 23 (Reuters) – Belarusian lawyer Mikhail Kirilyuk says he received a troubling text message in October from an acquaintance associated with the country’s security services.
The acquaintance urged Kirilyuk, who had defended anti-government demonstrators and publicly criticized the rule of President Alexander Lukashenko, to leave the country. According to Kirilyuk, who said the text was sent via an encrypted messaging app and the content described Reuters, the message also contained a warning: the lawyer was threatened with arrest and his license to practice revoked.
This month Kirilyuk left for Poland with his parents and young children, which Lukashenko has long been critical of. In February, the Ministry of Justice revoked Kirilyuk’s license, according to a court document published in April in Minsk on 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, 38-year-old Kirilyuk said he believed the action against him was politically motivated because he represented and his public critical comments. He said he left because he “did not want to be arrested” and that he would not return home until Lukashenko was no longer in office.
Kirilyuk’s report fits what more than half a dozen Belarusian lawyers, as well as international professional associations and human rights organizations, refer to as patterns of intimidation and repression of lawyers by the Belarusian authorities. These measures include criminal and disciplinary proceedings against attorneys as well as dismissal, it said.
Seven lawyers interviewed by Reuters say their licenses were revoked after defending protesters, speaking out against authorities, or opposing pressure on their profession. Several of them state that authorities monitored confidential customer conversations or hindered their work. Reuters was unable to independently confirm their claims or the text message described by Kirilyuk.
Lukashenko’s office did not respond to requests for comments. The president said in March that it was necessary to “fix things” in the legal profession, according to comments published on the state-controlled Belarus Today news agency.
The Justice Department responded to Reuters’ questions that its oversight of the legal profession would be implemented in accordance with “the principle of advocacy independence and non-interference in the professional practice of lawyers”.
Statements by excluded lawyers about the persecution of the profession and the interference by the Ministry of Justice are “not supported by facts and documents, are unfounded and are based on the statements of the infringers themselves”.
The ministry said it had the power to terminate legal licenses under the circumstances established by law. It added that the decision to terminate a number of attorneys’ licensing this year was due to their “gross violations of licensing law,” licensing requirements and conditions, or behavior that “compromised the legal profession. discredited “. She did not name the attorneys, but said she included people interviewed by Reuters in her questions.
The authorities in this former Soviet state have been cracking down on dissenting opinions since last August, when the longtime president declared himself the winner in an election that many Western countries viewed as fraudulent. Targets included opposition politicians, activists and the media. In an episode that shocked the West in May, a plane flying over Belarus landed on the ground and a renegade journalist arrested on board.
On August 9, the first anniversary of the controversial election, Lukashenko said he won the vote fairly and saved Belarus from a violent uprising. In a press conference in the capital, Minsk, the president said that an Olympic sprinter who defected to Poland at the Olympic Games in Tokyo had been “manipulated” from outside.
According to the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), a Paris-based non-governmental organization, at least 23 Belarusian lawyers have been sacked since last summer. The association said Belarus had retaliated against lawyers in the past; According to the FIDH, what is new is “the extent of repression” and that it now also includes criminal acts.
The dismissal of all but one of the lawyers identified by the FIDH has been confirmed by statements on the Justice Department website or the state news agency Belta. The other attorney confirmed to Reuters that her license had been revoked.
That figure includes three lawyers the Justice Department said on Aug. 11 that they had been fired for “improperly” performing their professional duties and “showing an unsatisfactory understanding of the law required to practice the legal profession.”
A new law passed by 66-year-old Lukashenko in June stipulates, among other things, that only candidates approved by the Ministry of Justice may be admitted as lawyers, which some lawyers believe should serve to control their profession.
So far, the bar associations have selected trainees for the compulsory internships and all candidates had to pass the bar exam before they could become a lawyer. Under the new law, the Ministry of Justice will coordinate the makeup of interns and those who have served in the police or other investigative agencies, if nominated by their respective state institutions, only need to complete a three-month internship and oral exam to become a Attorney.
Justice Minister Oleg Slizhevsky said the aim of the new law, which will come into force at the end of this year, is to improve the quality of lawyers and improve their advocacy.
After Lukashenko won the presidential election last summer, mass protests broke out in Belarus. The unrest has been the greatest challenge to his rule since he took office in 1994. The authorities responded with sometimes violent repression against demonstrators; many political opponents were arrested or went into exile. The reaction led to Western sanctions.
The Belarusian authorities have described the actions of the law enforcement authorities as appropriate and necessary.
A key moment for some lawyers and human rights activists was the arrest of lawyers Maxim Znak and Illia Salei in September. They represented Maria Kolesnikova, one of the leaders of the mass protests.
Earlier this month, Znak and Kolesnikova were on trial for extremism and attempting to take power. Both deny the allegations.
The authorities accused Salei of publicly calling for measures to harm national security. Salei, who denies the wrongdoing, has been released on bail during the investigation, according to his father, who acts as his lawyer.
Two other lawyers representing protest leader Kolesnikova were fired.
Siarhej Zikratski, an attorney for Znak, lost his license in March after appearing before a panel set up by the Justice Ministry to review prospective attorneys who may decide whether to reject existing attorneys.
Zikratski said the panel is gathering information about lawyers’ media interviews, social media posts, and petitions they have signed. The lawyer added that while he was appearing before the panel, he was questioned about the media interviews he had given and certain parts of the Belarusian legal code.
“We discussed why I gave interviews to the media and why I didn’t have the right to speak,” Zikratski told Reuters in June from his current base, the Lithuanian capital Vilnius. He now represents the exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.
“PEOPLE ARE AFRAID”
The United Nations has declared that 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 that interference in the work of lawyers was “systematic” and that lawyers were often denied access to clients and faced with dismissal, detention or arrest.
Belarus said in response to a UN resolution citing the May report that the UN’s decisions have long failed to reflect the real human rights situation in the world and serve as a pretext for pressure and sanctions from the collective West against states that obey not his dictation. “
Kirilyuk specializes in business law. But after security forces began arresting people in the mass protests, he and other lawyers saw a flurry of requests from people seeking legal assistance, he said. “We had 10, 20, 30 or 50 calls a day because people were scared. They were tortured in prison and didn’t know what to do, ”said Kirilyuk.
Kirilyuk said he has taken on cases related to the protests, including that of Yelena Leuchanka, a Belarusian basketball star who was arrested by authorities after participating in protests demanding Lukashenko’s resignation. Leuchanka was sentenced to 15 days in prison in September for participating in protests calling for the president to resign.
Kirilyuk said the police refused to tell him where Leuchanka was being held; he and his colleagues had to call police stations before they could locate them in a detention center in Minsk. The attorney said he was initially denied access to his client and then met her just 10 minutes before she appeared in court.
Reuters has been unable to independently confirm Kirilyuk’s allegations about torture or the details of Leuchanka’s case.
The Ministry of Interior, which oversees the police, referred questions to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for comment. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to a request for comment.
While visiting another detained client in August last year, Kirilyuk said he noticed a camera during a confidential meeting. When the attorney’s COVID-19 mask slipped under his nose, a phone rang in the room, and when he picked it up, a voice told him to slide it back up, Kirilyuk said.
Such tactics, he said, have a deterrent effect. “It is so easy to show you that we hear you, we watch and everything you say to your client is on camera,” said Kirilyuk.
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; Writing by Matthias Williams and Andrew Osborn Editing by Cassell Bryan-Low
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