An increasing number of Belarusian attorneys have seen their law licenses removed for trying to defend opposition figures.
(CN) — Sitting in her car and talking via an encrypted video link on her smartphone from Minsk, disbarred lawyer Liudmila Kazak said her life and work as a legal defender for Belarusian opposition figures is more like fiction than real life.
“The situation really is like you’re reading a book,” Kazak said, speaking in Russian through a translator, in an interview with Courthouse News. “This book is about how there is a sort of state dictatorship in this country.”
Kazak is among a growing number of lawyers who are getting barred from practicing law in Belarus. In a new report, the American Bar Association said the disbarments appear to be part of a “larger pattern of retaliation by the Belarus government against lawyers for representing political opposition members and protesters and speaking out about the rule of law and human rights in Belarus.”
The dystopian book in which Kazak has found herself is part of is the same one captivating some 10 million Belarusians as their nation becomes ever more isolated from the rest of the world under President Alexander Lukashenko.
A Soviet-style leader whose office teetered on the verge of collapse eight months ago in the face of massive street protests, Lukashenko has held onto power while keeping a tight grip on politicians, journalists, students, everyday citizens, activists and lawyers.
This crackdown reached a new low on Sunday when Belarus forced a Ryanair passenger flight passing through its airspace to land in Minsk, where authorities promptly arrested Roman Protasevich, a prominent 26-year-old opposition journalist and activist aboard the plane. This incident sparked international condemnation, and the European Union blocked air travel to and from the country.
For Kazak, her day of reckoning came at the height of a protest movement that followed presidential elections in August — deemed to have been rigged when Lukashenko was declared the winner.
As a lawyer for the woman who’d become the face of the popular resistance movement against Lukashenko, Maria Kolesnikova, Kazak was in the thick of the political earthquake taking place in Belarus.
Kolesnikova was one of three women who ran in the presidential campaign against Lukashenko, turning Belarus’ politics on its head. On Sept. 7, she was kidnapped by masked men and locked up in Minsk, accused of being a national security threat due to her actions leading the protests.
Kazak was scheduled in court for an important hearing in Kolesnikova’s case on Sept. 25, 2020. The day prior, a Thursday, Kazak was walking along a boulevard called Communist Street in central Minsk, headed to court for a hearing.
Suddenly, Kazak found herself stopped by three state agents in masks. They did not identify themselves, she said, and forced her into an unmarked vehicle. She was under arrest, though they didn’t tell her what she’d done wrong.
Next, she was taken to the District Department of Internal Affairs, a police station, where her telephone and possessions, including her confidential file for Kolesnikova’s case, were confiscated.
“All the documents were returned,” she said. “But how very rude, very, very rude.”
She believes state authorities studied and copied her file on Kolesnikova, which contained “lots of materials and documents about the case, such as papers, flashcards, phone numbers.”
“When the police got their order to detain me, they didn’t think twice about the laws or procedures; they just grabbed me, violently and detained me,” she said. “The whole aim of my detention was obviously to get more information about Kolesnikova.”
She spent that night in a cell and appeared before Oktyabrsky District Court the following day. Her disappearance down her own legal black hole left her unable to attend the court hearing to defend Kolesnikova.
At the Oktyabrsky District Court, she learned what charges the state authorities had cooked up for her. She was accused of taking part in an illegal protest on Aug. 30 and disobeying orders when she was whisked off the street by the unidentified masked officers.
She was only charged with the latter offense. During the hearing, two unnamed masked witnesses, who claimed to be the officers who’d arrested her, appeared by video and testified that she had disobeyed orders. On Nov. 10, the Minsk City Court upheld the charge against her.
But another sinister plan also may have been at work with Kazak’s arrest and conviction on the absurd charge of disobeying an unidentified, masked police officer. The conviction meant she had broken the Code of Administrative Offenses, leaving her own legal license in jeopardy. And that’s precisely what happened.
On Feb. 11, Kazak was told that she needed to appear before the Ministry of Justice’s Qualification Commission because of her infraction of the Code of Administrative Offenses.
The American Bar Association report said the commission said it wanted to determine “whether she had committed actions incompatible with the title of a lawyer and which discredited the legal profession.”
When the body determined exactly that on Feb. 19, it took her license away. Her lawyer was not allowed to attend the hearing. She appealed the disbarment and her appeal is pending before the courts. She cannot get her license back for at least three years, she said.
“The situation currently could be described as a legal meltdown, which is a new term that has become commonly used,” she said. “It’s a situation when the laws in practice do not work at all.”
She said regardless of what lawyers do, “they just are not getting any results; the legal system is not working.”
Sitting in her car and speaking about her country’s legal meltdown, she smiled often and bore a sunny disposition, but she depicted a dark picture for Belarus and its future.
“The situation is so depressing,” she continued, saying that lawyers who’ve stood up for her and signed a petition calling on the Ministry of Justice to give her license back are also facing retaliation.
More than 20 attorneys have been disbarred by Kazak’s count, and most of them are losing their licenses for “political reasons, because they work on sensitive cases,” she said.
The American Bar Association report examined three recent other disbarments similar to Kazak’s. Two lawyers were kicked off the bar after they were accused of participating in unauthorized mass events, and another one for criticizing the government for human rights abuses on Facebook. The report also highlighted previous cases of prominent lawyers who have been arrested and faced retaliation for political motives.
As the protest movement suffered from the state’s crackdown and became more fragmented and neighborhood based during Belarus’ cold winter, lawyers interviewed by Courthouse News described their country as 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, 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.
Kazak has been a lawyer for about 22 years and spent the past decade working on behalf of public activists, political prisoners, human rights defenders and journalists, according to the American Bar Association report.
“I always faced some kind of unpleasantness, some kind of pressure because of my work,” she said. For example, she and other lawyers she works with once had their licenses temporarily suspended for six months.
She is concerned that it will become even more difficult for lawyers in Belarus. The government is proposing changes that will give it even more control over who can become a lawyer, and it could make it easier for pro-government former prosecutors and former judges to get law licenses, she said.
She said the repression of lawyers has had a chilling effect and made lawyers wary of taking up politically difficult cases.
“People will not be that interested in representing cases of a sensitive nature, political cases,” she said. “While there are lots of attorneys still working, I feel that few attorneys are now available who can work on sensitive cases and those attorneys are under the very close eye of the government.”
Belarusians are scared, she continued, and the protest movement against Lukashenko has weakened.
Viasna, a Belarusian human rights group, lists 421 people in Belarusian jails whom it defines as political prisoners. The reports of new arrests and convictions against opposition figures is staggering.
This week, seven protesters accused of taking part in riots were convicted by the Mahiliou Regional Court and sentenced to between four and seven years in prison. Numerous staff members at a popular news outlet, Tut.By, are being held, according to Viasna. The news outlet’s offices and staff members’ homes were raided last week over alleged financial irregularities.
In April, 98 people were convicted in politically motivated cases, Viasna said in a report. The human rights group said it and similar groups were the subject of searches and arrests. Prosecutors are pursuing hundreds of cases against people accused of desecrating public buildings, insulting officials, and threatening or injuring police officers. Authorities are going after people trying to organize opposition groups, charging them with extremist activity.
“I read and monitor criminal cases and what’s taking place now in the criminal courts is really shocking; it’s shocking how the system is not fair,” Kazak said. “There are violations of fair trial and due process; it makes me really sad, but I hope that eventually, in the distant future, it will be better.”
Despite all the repression, she is hopeful.
“It’s obvious that the protests faded a little bit; lots of people are detained, lots of people are afraid to even go outside; there is a wave of repression,” she said. “But I feel that in the future the protests will be revived. People’s understanding of what change is cannot be forgotten or taken away from people’s mindset.”
For now, though, she’s still stuck in the middle of this dystopian book where she is being watched and monitored as an enemy of the state.
“Overall, I don’t feel that I’m being physically followed by police or anyone,” she said. “But of course, it’s a fact that I feel that my phone is being listened to.”
Upon returning from a recent business trip out of Belarus, she was singled out among the airport passengers and taken aside. Her belongings were carefully searched.
“So obviously I am being watched and I’m being monitored,” she said.
Looking at her smartphone, she talked about the need to delete messages and use encrypted platforms.
“The disappearing function,” she said wryly, “is unfortunately everyday life for me.”
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.