Belarus tightens grip on lawyers

Belarus tightens grip on lawyers
# 23 August 2021 17:33 (UTC +04:00)

Belarusian lawyer Mikhail Kirilyuk says he received an unsettling text message in October from an acquaintance linked to the country’s security services, APA reports citing Reuters.

The acquaintance urged Kirilyuk, who had defended anti-government protesters and publicly criticised President Alexander Lukashenko’s rule, to leave the country. According to Kirilyuk, who said the text was sent via an encrypted messaging app and described its content to Reuters, the message also contained a warning: The attorney faced arrest and revocation of his license to practice law.

Kirilyuk left that month with his parents and young children for Poland, which has long been critical of Lukashenko. In February, the justice ministry revoked Kirilyuk’s license, according to an April Minsk court document relating to his unsuccessful appeal. The ministry said in a February press release that Kirilyuk had made “unacceptable” public statements that contained “rude” and “tactless” comments about state representatives, without identifying them.

Speaking with Reuters from Warsaw, 38-year-old Kirilyuk said he believed the action against him was politically motivated because of who he had represented and his public critical comments. He said he left because he “didn’t want to get arrested” and that he won’t return home until Lukashenko is out of 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 pattern of intimidation and suppression of attorneys by Belarusian authorities. Those actions include criminal and disciplinary proceedings against lawyers and disbarment, they say.

Seven lawyers interviewed by Reuters say their licenses were removed after defending protesters, speaking out against authorities or resisting what they said was pressure on their profession. Several of them allege that authorities monitored confidential client meetings or obstructed their work. Reuters was unable to independently corroborate their assertions or the text message described by Kirilyuk.

Lukashenko’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment. The president in March said there was a need to "put things in order" in the legal profession, according to comments published in the state-controlled Belarus Today news outlet.

The justice ministry, in response to Reuters’ questions, said its oversight of the legal profession is implemented in accordance “with the principle of independence of advocacy and non-interference in the professional activities of advocates.”

It said statements by disbarred lawyers about the persecution of the profession and interference by the justice ministry “are not supported by facts and documents, are unfounded and are based on the statements of the violators themselves.”

The ministry said it has the power to terminate legal licenses in circumstances stipulated by law. It added that decisions to terminate the licenses of a number of lawyers this year was because they had committed “gross violations of licensing legislation,” licensing requirements and conditions, or engaged in conduct that “discredit” the legal profession. It didn’t name the lawyers but said it included those Reuters asked about in its questions.