Tallinn, Estonia: For nearly three years, a harsh crackdown on dissent in Belarus by its authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko has filled the country’s criminal colonies with thousands of political prisoners, with new arrests reported daily. At the same time, a government crackdown has removed many independent lawyers, making it more difficult for detainees to mount any kind of legal defense.
he will panic Zakratek He is among those lawyers who have been forced to leave Belarus under threat of arrest.
More than 500 of his colleagues have been stripped of their law licenses and left the profession since 2020, many of them moving abroad after suffering reprisals at home. Some of them ended up in prison.
Zakratsky says Belarus has virtually run out of independent lawyers to represent the many political prisoners in the country of 9.5 million people, a situation he calls “catastrophic”.
Lawyers are reluctant to take on “politically motivated cases, and even those who have already signed contracts with clients are no longer willing to provide them with legal services,” Zakratsky told the Associated Press by phone from a Western country.
“The chances of finding a lawyer for a political prisoner in Belarus are now close to zero.”
Demand for lawyers outstrips supply, he said, as repression intensifies and the number of political prisoners increases, “but there is no one to stand up for them.”
The sweeping crackdown began after Lukashenko, who ran Belarus with an iron fist for 29 years, was re-elected in August 2020 in a presidential election that was widely seen at home and in the West as rigged.
Massive protests swept the country, some of which drew more than 100,000 people.
The authorities responded with a brutal crackdown that resulted in the arrest of more than 35,000 people, the beating of thousands by police in detention, and the closure of dozens of non-governmental organizations and independent media.
The number of lawyers in Belarus decreased from about 2,200 in 2020 to about 1,650 this year. justice The ministry said.
Zakratsky said that the authorities have created a system in which only pro-government lawyers are allowed to represent political prisoners.
“It defiles the very idea of ​​legal defense, and political prisoners are not only denied the right to legal aid but cannot even report on the conditions of torture behind bars,” he said.
In the Belarusian legal system, where convictions are almost certain once charges are brought against a defendant, independent lawyers still perform an important function.
They ensure, for example, that the case is not rushed and that due process is followed, and they act as important conduits between detainees and their families.
In a recent speech, Lukashenko openly declared that defense lawyers “must be in control.”
“The defense attorney is a public servant and his actions should be based on legal rules and not on some imaginary norms such as freedom of expression and other freedoms,” he said. “We are tired of these freedoms.”
Eight prominent lawyers who defended political prisoners are serving long sentences on what are seen as trumped-up charges, including lawyer Maxim Znak, who represented a presidential candidate and was sentenced to 10 years in prison for involvement in an extremist group and conspiracy to seize power and calls. To take action against national security.
Ayaksandr Danilevich, who spoke out against Russia’s war in Ukraine and defended Belarusian athletes who supported the protests, was given the same sentence for harming national security and aiding extremist activities.
Rights activist Alice Bialiatsky, who won the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize, is serving 10 years after being found guilty of financing acts that violate public order and smuggling – charges he rejects.
His lawyer, Vital Brahinitz, was sentenced to eight years in prison for incitement to actions against national security, and another of his lawyers had his legal license withdrawn.
Bialiatsky’s wife, Natalia Pinchuk, will not yet identify his remaining lawyer for fear of losing him.
She said she was “desperate” because she had not heard from her husband since May, when he was transferred to a notoriously brutal maximum security prison and denied access to a lawyer.
Pinchuk said she received information through other prisoners that authorities had denied Bialiatsky even a pen and paper to request access to a lawyer.
“They keep him in a severe media blackout and create unbearable conditions to prove that even a Nobel laureate can be denied everything, including the opportunity to meet with a lawyer,” she told the Associated Press.
“The authorities have learned how to use lawyers as a tool of manipulation and pressure.”
Recent letters from the 60-year-old Bialiatsky said his health — especially his eyesight — had deteriorated, Pinchuk said, adding that it was impossible to assess his condition without a lawyer.
“The authorities realized that lawyers were telling journalists and international organizations about abuses and conditions of torture in Belarusian prisons for political prisoners,” she said.
“Lawyers know better than anyone that confinement in Belarusian prisons seriously undermines the health of prisoners.”
There has been no information for more than 100 days about opposition leader Nikolai Statkevich, who is serving a 14-year prison sentence, and Maria Kolesnikova, who is sentenced to 11 years in prison.
Likewise, the case of Victor Babarika, an aspiring presidential candidate who is serving 14 years, has not been known for more than a month, and his supporters suspect he was beaten and placed in a prison hospital.
Pinchuk believes the UN should step in to help “cut off the information blackout about Belarusian political prisoners”.
“It would be great if the United Nations properly used all the tools it has,” she said. “Unfortunately, we have seen recently that despite the terrorism in Belarus, the UN often turns a blind eye to the situation.”
The authorities banned the activities of private law firms, and all defense lawyers became part of government associations under strict oversight by the Ministry of Justice. He appoints the heads of these associations.
By law, authorities appoint a state defense attorney for a defendant who cannot find a representative. State attorneys usually side with investigators rather than their clients.
Vola Vysotskaya, who has been accused of inciting tensions, said she tried to contact the state attorney for her trial so she could see documents related to her case, “but not only did he refuse to speak to me, he turned off his phone and blocked me on all messaging apps.”
The 24-year-old fled the country before her trial began, and was found guilty in absentia and sentenced to 12 years in prison.
“Defense lawyers in Belarus have become an instrument of government repression instead of defense, and it is not even clear what is worse – the lack of defense during the trial or the official presence of a lawyer that legitimizes the verdict,” Vysotskaya said.
Opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who challenged Lukashenko in the 2020 election and was pressured to flee Belarus after the vote, has been tried in absentia and found guilty of extremism, high treason and threatening state security. She was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
She said she was unable to read her case materials and speak to the state attorney appointed to represent her.
She ran for president after her husband, Siarhei Tsikhanouski, a popular blogger and activist, was arrested days after announcing his candidacy.
He was found guilty of organizing mass disturbances, inciting hatred and disobeying the police and was sentenced to 19 and a half years in prison.
Tsikhanouskaya told the Associated Press that her husband is being held in “torturous conditions” without access to a lawyer, and she has not heard from him in more than three months.
Citing traditional images of the Greek goddess of justice blindfolded, the opposition leader said Lukashenko had added “a muzzle in her mouth and earplugs”.
Last month, hundreds of lawyers who fled the country set up the Belarusian Association of Human Rights Lawyers, urging the United Nations to act.
“Belarus has approved legislation that violates the principles and essence of legal defense and applies the exercise of total control over lawyers,” the association said.
“The repressions have destroyed procedural and professional guarantees for the activities of lawyers, effectively destroying the country’s legal defense.”
Zakratsky said his former home country had reached a “terrible moment”.
“Belarus is rapidly becoming a concentration camp in the middle of Europe,” he said.
“Repression in Belarus is escalating and the country has run out of lawyers, and the consequences are not hard to predict.”


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