Belarus: stop politically motivated prosecution and disbarment of lawyers

Today, the ICJ called on the Belarus Ministry of Justice and other relevant authorities to end the recent practice of using legal proceedings against lawyers in retaliation for discharging their professional duties and to reinstate those already disbarred.

In recent months, in the context of widespread violations of the human rights of those protesting against the outcome of the disputed 2020 presidential election, there has been an unprecedented increase of cases of disbarment of lawyers especially those who comment on violations of the human rights of their clients. Among the most recently disbarred lawyers are Konstantin Mikhel, Maxim Konon, Mikhail Kirilyuk and Yulia Ivanchuk.

“This recent wave of criminal and disciplinary proceedings against lawyers is highly worrying and it constitutes an attack on the independence of the legal profession. These proceedings, be they of criminal, administrative or disciplinary nature, should be discontinued or reconsidered as being contrary to the international human rights law concerning the independence of the legal profession,” said Temur Shakirov, Senior Legal Adviser of the ICJ Europe and Central Asia Programme.

There is a clear pattern of the misuse of disciplinary proceedings against lawyers who represent political opponents of the government or those who openly criticize the government on issues of public significance.

Disciplinary proceedings in Belarus are not independent of the executive, since they are conducted by the Qualification Commission which operates under the Ministry of Justice.

Notably, disciplinary proceedings are pending against lawyer Dmitry Layevski, allegedly following his public comments on a pending Draft Law on advocates’ activities.

Dmitry Layevski is a lawyer representing Victor Babaryko, an opposition leader in Belarus currently in detention, and Maxim Znak, former legal representative of Maria Kolesnikova, another detained opposition leader.

Earlier, a number of lawyers, including Aleksandr Pylchenko, former legal representative of Viktor Babaryko and Maria Kolesnikova, and Lyudmila Kazak, former legal representative of Maria Kolesnikova, faced disciplinary sanctions, and Lyudmila Kazak incurred an administrative fine, as a result of discharging their professional functions.

Several lawyers involved in human rights cases have been called by the Qualification Commission to undergo an examination to re-certify their qualification to practice law and have failed the exam. This procedure appears to target lawyers working to defend human rights, as a means of harassment or reprisal.

For example, following comments in mass media, Sergey Zikraskiy, a lawyer who often represented Belarusian journalists, was called to pass extraordinary re-examination which he failed. The certification is carried out by the Qualification Commission.

Criminal cases are still pending against lawyers Ilya Saley and Maxim Znak, who appear to have suffered consequences as a result of their representation of opposition leaders Maria Kolesnikova and Victor Babaryko.

 “These disbarments have a significant chilling effect on work of the legal profession and undermine the ability of lawyers to defend human rights of their clients in accordance with international standards on the role of lawyers,” Shakirov said.


International law and standards 

According to the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers, the State authorities must guarantee that lawyers are able carry out their professional functions without hindrance, intimidation, harassment or fear of retaliation (Principle 16). The UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers affirm that lawyers “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 16.c)  They further stipulate that lawyers must not be identified with their clients or their clients’ causes as a result of discharging their functions (Principle 18).

International standards also require the institutional independence of the legal profession.  The executive body of the professional associations of lawyers must be elected by its members and must exercise its functions without external interference (Principle 24, The UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers).

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