The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, an FIDH-OMCT partnership, in collaboration with the Paris Bar and Human Rights Centre “Viasna”, released on 29 June 2019 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.
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.
The Observatory and the Paris Bar call on the Belarusian authorities to guarantee the protection of lawyers in the country in all circumstances, in particular those specialised in defending fundamental freedoms and to ensure more generally the protection of all human rights defenders in Belarus.