Minsk-Paris-Geneva, June 29, 2018 – The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a partnership between FIDH and OMCT, in collaboration with the Paris Bar and Human Rights Centre “Viasna”, today released a report documenting restrictions on the independence of lawyers in Belarus. Based on an investigation conducted in January 2018, the report criticises the executive power’s stranglehold on the capacity of lawyers defending cases which the authorities consider to be ‘sensitive’ to practise their profession.
In Belarus, lawyers defending cases considered by the authorities to be ‘troublesome’ are generally exposed to retaliatory measures, which can culminate in their expulsion, against a background of changes to the legal framework that have gradually placed Belarusian bars, and lawyers themselves, under the direct authority of the Ministry of Justice. Such retaliatory measures are often initiated following repression by the authorities of large-scale protests, as in 2010 and 2017.
In the course of the past few years, the bars have been stripped of their primary function, which is to guarantee independence and ensure the regulation of the profession. Access to the profession and its organisation now fall under the almost exclusive competence of civil servants in the Ministry of Justice.
“Today in Belarus, lawyers can have their right to practise withdrawn for any reason, as soon as they take on cases considered by the authorities to be ‘troublesome’”, said the Observatory and the Paris Bar.
Over recent years, the Ministry of Justice has granted itself the power to summon lawyers to appear before a commission to verify their competence, which has become a key censorship tool. This commission, which formerly examined lawyers’ qualifications every five years, can now summon any lawyer at any time, on an extraordinary basis. The commission undertakes an oral examination, which is difficult to challenge. The lawyers interviewed by the mission delegation in January underlined that, during the examination, the commission does not take account of lawyers’ areas of specialisation and can therefore ask questions outside their field of expertise. In addition, the legal framework does not specify the number of questions that can be asked, nor the duration of interviews, thereby opening the door to arbitrary treatment of the lawyers under examination.
“This targeted harassment through the qualification commission not only has the effect of penalising the free exercise of the profession but also undermines the rights of the defence and the right to a fair trial in Belarus”, added the Observatory and the Paris Bar. “It appears vital and urgent to review the control of the executive over the bars in Belarus and to create the conditions for lawyers to be able to practise freely and independently, in accordance with international law”.
The Observatory and the Paris Bar call on the Belarusian authorities to guarantee in all circumstances the protection of lawyers in the country, in particular those specialised in defending fundamental freedoms, and to ensure more generally the protection of all human rights defenders in Belarus.
The investigation report is available in English, French and Russian