Belarusian Lawyers Describe Living in a Soviet-Era Nightmare

A man wearing a face mask holds an old Belarusian national flag during an opposition rally to protest the official presidential election results in Minsk, Belarus, Nov. 22. (AP Photo)

(CN) — With their nation enveloped by winter and snow, Belarusian protesters and pro-democratic opposition forces seeking to bring down the brutal regime of Alexander Lukashenko are preparing for a new season of mass protests.

In interviews with Courthouse News, Belarusian lawyers opened a window into the state of affairs this winter in a European nation still suffering the kind of repression that marked Europe’s Soviet past. 

They spoke about the use of torture and police violence, severe political oppression, absurd trials and arrests, pervasive state surveillance, state intimidation, a diaspora of dissidents and the need for a complete overhaul of Belarusian politics and laws.

“It’s of course difficult to work, but you always have to think about other people who have it worse,” said Aliaksei Loika, a lawyer with Viasna, a Belarusian human rights group, via a video link from his home in Minsk, the capital of Belarus.  

“I think about the dissidents who worked in the Soviet Union,” he continued, speaking through a translator. “I think about the people who are now in jails and prisons imprisoned for absolutely nothing and who are suffering. They have it worse than I do.”

Since the coming of another cold Belarusian winter, the dissident movement against Lukashenko has turned into more of a guerilla campaign based around neighborhood protests instead of mass street demonstrations where thousands of people, many of them waving white-and-red national flags, face off with phalanxes of riot police.

With Belarus’ secret services — which still retain the Soviet-era name of the KGB — infiltrating the protest movement, dissidents are organizing themselves via smaller, better-protected chat groups on social media and taking part in more spontaneous protests. 

Suddenly, for example, dozens of people might spill out onto a snow-covered courtyard singing protest songs and displaying the opposition colors of red and white before everyone disappears back into apartments. 

At night, street artists dart out into the wintry darkness and spray paint protest images on walls and other surfaces. Often the images — for example, a rose ensnared in barbed wire — are depicted in red and white, the colors of a republican and democratic pre-Soviet Belarus. Displaying the old national flag — which Belarusian authorities say is akin to showing support for fascism — can be a crime.

During this winter, the opposition also is gathering evidence of wide-scale human rights violations by the regime and laying the groundwork to bring potential charges against Lukashenko and other officials under international law.

“There is universal jurisdiction,” said Natalia Matskevich, a Minsk lawyer representing pro-democratic figures targeted by the government. “Cases involving victims of torture can be opened in other countries because torture is forbidden by international human rights law.”

Testimony and evidence collected against the regime could, in theory, also be used in Belarusian courts if Lukashenko is brought down and a new democratic government emerges and establishes a fair and independent court system.

The crisis erupted after Lukashenko was declared the winner of Aug. 9 presidential elections widely believed to have been rigged. The official election count showed him taking 80% of votes, an absurdity considering the widespread support shown for his chief opponent, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the wife of an anti-corruption blogger arrested and imprisoned after he jumped into the presidential race.

Since the election, police and military forces have violently cracked down on protesters demanding an end to Lukashenko’s regime and Tikhanovskaya has gone into exile in Lithuania. Calling herself the democratic leader of Belarus, she is seeking to orchestrate the regime’s downfall.

Police officers kick a demonstrator during a mass protest following presidential election in Minsk, Belarus, Aug. 10. (AP Photo)

“There are only a few people who did not have someone among their relatives, friends, neighbors, acquaintances who was not a victim of this brutality and mass torture and inhuman treatment,” Loika said. “No one really predicted this level of mass torture; no one really thought this could happen in Belarus. This was probably the reason why everyone started protesting and why these protests are ongoing.”

“I think that torture and inhuman treatment was going on in an industrial scale in Belarus, especially at the beginning of the protests,” said Kanstantsin Dzehtsiarou, a Belarusian professor of human rights law at the University of Liverpool, in a telephone interview. “We don’t know the whole picture because some people are afraid (to talk). It’s the tip of an iceberg; the real scale of this ill treatment we will probably never know for sure.”

Viasna, the human rights center, says it has collected more than 1,000 testimonies of torture victims in 2020. More than 33,000 people were detained and most saw jail time and were ordered to pay high fines, according to Viasna.

“Work is also something that saves us from depression because it is better to work and be in the process than to observe this process from the outside,” Matskevich said in a video link from Minsk, speaking through a translator.

Both Loika and Matskevich said they face harassment and punishment for their work in Belarus.

Matskevich said fellow lawyers who sided with opposition figures have had their licenses revoked and she fears the same could happen to her. One lawyer, a friend of hers, was kidnapped by men in plain clothes, held incommunicado for 20 hours and placed under house arrest. Another lawyer has been in jail for several months, she said. 

“It’s not pleasant to work when other attorneys have had their licenses revoked,” she said.

“The situation is quite grim at the moment,” Dzehtsiarou said. He said the Belarusian Bar Association is not an independent body and doesn’t defend lawyers as they should. “They mostly act as a governmental body that even tries to censor what lawyers are saying.”

A case in point is that of Alexander Pylchenko, a prominent lawyer and former chairman of the Minsk City Bar Association who was disbarred after he denounced the violence used against protesters. 

His clients included Viktor Babariko, a former Belarusian banker who was imprisoned after entering the presidential campaign, and Maria Kolesnikova, Babariko’s campaign manager. She was kidnapped and arrested when she led protests against Lukashenko following the August elections. Both Babariko and Kolesnikova remain behind bars.

On Oct. 16, Pylchenko was disbarred by the Ministry of Justice on the basis of comments he made to a popular Belarusian news outlet, Tut.By, in the wake of the elections when security forces used stun grenades and rubber bullets against protesters, a first in Belarusian history, and scores of demonstrators came out of jails saying they’d been beaten and tortured.

In the interview, Pylchenko called on the government to disarm soldiers involved in the violence and free protesters who’d been detained. The ministry declared his comments made him unfit to be a lawyer. His appeals have been unsuccessful.

“It is fairly easy to lose your license as we can see from Mr. Pylchenko’s case: You just need to say something and you will be almost automatically disbarred,” Dzehtsiarou said. “There is no law basically in Belarus at the moment.”

The American Bar Association has called his disbarment arbitrary and a violation of Belarusian and international laws protecting freedom of speech and a lawyer’s right to practice without intimidation.

“Alexander Pylchenko was denied his right to be a lawyer very quickly,” said Matskevich, who is working as Pylchenko’s lawyer. “He learned about the (disbarment) hearing at the Ministry of Justice just 10 days before it happened.”

“He’d worked as an attorney for 30 years,” she said. Now, even though he is unable to practice law, Pylchenko is staying in Belarus to help stop the “legal default” taking place in Belarus, she said. “He is not going to go anywhere.”

Loika is chronicling and monitoring the illegality in his nation. He spends his days inside Belarusian courthouses to follow the proceedings against protesters and critics of the regime. Part of his job is to examine who among those imprisoned should be recognized as political prisoners whose human rights are being violated.

“We have around 170 political prisoners,” he said.

Loika said his work is intense and carries with it risks. For instance, he said the state’s security apparatus monitors him and his clients.

“So, of course there are some rules: Just as a person has rules of personal hygiene, there are also rules for digital hygiene,” he said. “You make sure you do not have compromising information about yourself or your clients on your laptop. I also use lots of passwords.”

He continued. “The work is so intense that we don’t actually have time to think about all this, about how difficult it is to work in these conditions. But working in these conditions also makes us stronger.”

Loika said winter is a dangerous time for the protest movement because it is so decentralized and that makes it easier for the security forces to target activists in their neighborhoods.

“For example, I live in a neighborhood quite far from the city center,” Loika said. “Every Sunday a minibus — its windows tinted — drives through the neighborhood and courtyards. Security agents dressed in camouflage, vests, helmets and armed with batons jump off the minibus and arrest random passersby. 

“It doesn’t really matter if they have participated in a protest or aren’t wearing the national colors. Sometimes they detain people who are just pushing their children in strollers. They especially target men, but of course they take women too.”

He said the military patrols and arbitrary arrests, detentions and fines feed into an atmosphere of fear.

Once the cold recedes, the opposition is expected to return to the streets for mass demonstrations and there is a possibility tensions may explode on March 25, an anniversary celebrating the foundation of a short-lived pre-Soviet Belarusian republic in 1918. That government, known as the Rada, went into exile in 1919 and, a century later, continues to claim to be the legitimate Belarusian government.

In the meantime, Lukashenko is attempting to regain the trust of Belarusians by proposing constitutional changes that could limit the president’s power.

But Loika said he doesn’t expect much good to come from the constitutional debate set to start in February. “This is a sterilized event where only those people who support the government are invited.”

The events since August are proving that Belarus’ entire legal system needs to be overhauled, Dzehtsiarou said. He said Belarus’ constitution creates the conditions for a dictatorial leader like Lukashenko to appoint nearly every judge in the country except for those on the constitutional court, whose powers are limited.

“So reform is really necessary. It’s not just that Lukashnko should go and it will go back to normal without any reforms,” he said.

“Before August, I would say Belarusian courts were two different systems,” he said.    “When it came to political processes, there was no rule of law, nothing. When it came to other sorts of things, like normal civil cases or criminal cases — like ordinary robbery — I would say they were OK, less corrupt than in some neighboring countries.”

Since the uprising, though, he doubts the courts are able to be “independent in one area and then not independent in another.”

Dzehtsiarou said that before the crisis, Belarus had been moving in the right direction as society opened up, crime rates fell, incomes grew and new businesses popped up, among them new restaurants and tech companies.

“In Belarus, there are two realities happening,” he said. “One is this political reality which is absolutely linked to a single person [Lukashenko]. If you are not particularly a super wealthy businessman or you’re not completely well-connected to political reality, then you can live an absolutely normal regular life.”

Women attend an opposition rally to protest the official presidential election results in Minsk, Belarus, Sept. 12, 2020. ( via AP)

However, he said anyone who “crossed the line” and spoke out against the regime found “no guarantees for your safety” and was at risk of losing their jobs. “So, there are two different realities.”

“Then on the ninth of August, these two environments collapsed. Now they’re trying to see which one is going to survive and which one is going to go,” he said.

After more than 26 years in power, there are growing doubts about just how strong Lukashenko’s hand is even though he enjoys the support of the military and security forces. For much of his time in office, he’s been popular but support was eroding even before the election.

Since the crisis started, he has found himself internationally isolated and relying more heavily on Russian President Vladimir Putin, but who in turn is believed to care very little for Lukashenko.

With the Belarusian economy struggling, cracks showing inside the regime’s inner circles and the public’s outrage boiling, there’s a sense that the crisis in Belarus is heading toward a climax.

“I don’t think the state we are in will carry on for much longer,” Dzehtsiarou said. “Even Russia is trying to pressure Lukashenko to do something. It’s absolutely impossible to predict. Nobody could predict in August that we would end up here; and the same I would say about the situation now. It is impossible to predict.”

One thing seems certain: Belarusians are not going to stop their protests any time soon.

“We didn’t expect this level of support, this level of solidarity,” Matskevich said. She said Belarusians from all walks of life — from doctors to sports stars — are engaged like never before in their country’s politics and talking about human rights.

“We should really be proud of Belarus, of its people; about what is now being called the Belarusian miracle. This is not propaganda. This is really true,” she said. “Belarusians are sturdy, peaceful and an example of how to fight for freedom.”

Dzehtsiarou said the European Union and the United States need to keep pressure on Belarus.

“I think it’s a big test for Europe as well as a big test for the world,” he said. “Although Belarus has no natural resources — so basically, it is not Iraq, for good or for bad — it’s a test. That in the 21st century in the middle of Europe such major human rights violations can take place, and if Europe and the U.S. can let it happen, then we haven’t moved much from the middle of last century.”

 Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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