The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) condemns the ongoing attacks against independent lawyers in Belarus, a number of whom are facing disbarment, arbitrary prosecution, and other forms of harassment by authorities as they perform their professional duties and exercise their right to freedom of expression.
On 29 May, the Qualification Commission conducted an unscheduled performance assessment of lawyers and ruled in favor of disbarring 4 lawyers – Kozikov, Semyanov, Ulasevich and Yakusheva. Kozikov and Semyanov were subject to disciplinary measures for committing acts that “undermine the status of lawyer and the Bar”.
Both of them were defenders in high-profile political cases that might have led to their disbarment. Ulasevich and Yakusheva allegedly committed the same misdemeanours by reportedly donating to the Fund of Solidarity (the fund supports victims of political repressions that followed the 2020 Belarus elections).
“Lawyers fulfil their professional duties in an environment free from fear of retaliation or persecution, as required by international law and standards on the role of lawyers”, said Temur Shakirov, the Director (ad interim) of the ICJ Europe and Central Asia Programme. “Furthermore, the Bar Association must strongly stand against such attacks on its members instead of actively being complicit in disbarments, which are contrary to international law on the role of lawyers.”
The ICJ has repeatedly voiced concerns over these attacks. Belarus authorities have continuously harassed lawyers defending political activists, human rights defenders, protestors, and those who vocally raise concerns about matters of public concern in Belarus.
On 10 April, a renowned Belarussian lawyer, Alexander Danilevich, was sentenced to 10 years of imprisonment by the Minsk city court. On 10 May 2022, he was arrested and charged with “aiding and abetting public calls for actions aimed at causing damage to the national security of the Republic of Belarus” under the Criminal Code of Belarus. Prior to his arrest, Danilevich was fired from the Belarus State University after he had signed a petition against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
On 21 April, the Qualification Commission on lawyers’ activities in the Republic of Belarus ruled in favor of having licenses of 5 lawyers terminated: 3 lawyers stripped of their status based on alleged misdemeanors while another 2 lawyers were disbarred for their allegedly inadequate qualifications.
On 26 April, it came to light that a lawyer of the Minsk Regional Bar, Alexey Borodko, had been detained in January 2023. His case was assigned to a judge who had earlier sentenced another lawyer, Alexander Danilevich, to 10 years of imprisonment.
On 11 May, another lawyer, Anastasia Lazarenko, was sentenced by the Minsk city court to 6 years of imprisonment on charges of “sharing private data on law enforcement officers and judges through “Telegram” channels”, and “organization and preparation of actions that blatantly violate public order”. Shortly before the hearing took place, Lazarenko was left without her lawyer since he was called to the stand as a witness, thus she was also denied the right to have a defence attorney of her choosing. She has been in custody since 2 June 2022
“These instances of prosecution and harassment violate the principle that lawyers should not be identified with their clients or their clients’ causes as a result of discharging their functions”, said Temur Shakirov
The ICJ calls on the Belarus authorities to immediately cease the persecution and harassment against independent lawyers.
According to data of disciplinary measures against lawyers in Belarus in 2022 analyzed by the “Right to Defence” project, the number of lawyers held liable for alleged disciplinary misdemeanours has significantly increased. In 2022, 74 lawyers were held liable, which is 26 lawyers more than in 2021, and 53 more than in 2020. In 2023, 27 lawyers have been disbarred. The total number of licensed lawyers in Belarus is 1650, a decrease from the 2200 lawyers that were present at the start of 2020.
Principle 16 of The UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers, affirms that “Governments shall ensure that lawyers (a) are able to perform all of their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference; (b) are able to travel and to consult with their clients freely both within their own country and abroad; and (c) shall not suffer, or be threatened with, prosecution or administrative, economic or other sanctions for any action taken in accordance with recognized professional duties, standards and ethics.
Principle 18 provides that Lawyers shall not be identified with their clients or their clients’ causes as a result of discharging their functions.
Article 14 of the ICCPR, to which Belarus is party, obliges Stats to respect and ensure the right to a fair trial, including the guarantees of the independence of lawyers and the judiciary in law and in practice.
Attacks on Justice