Since protests erupted after Belarus’s widely condemned 2020 presidential election, the Belarusian government has used several punitive tools against lawyers who express views critical of the government or who represent protestors or other opposition figures. The government’s actions against lawyers over the past several months have taken the form of criminal proceedings, administrative detention and penalties, disciplinary proceedings, and, in several cases, disbarment. The disbarments examined in this report represent part of a wider and ongoing pattern of repression of the legal profession in Belarus that has included various forms of intimidation, harassment, and government control.
On February 19, 2021, Belarusian attorneys Liudmila Kazak, Konstantin Mikhel, Maxim Konon and Mikhail Kirilyuk were disbarred by the Belarus Ministry of Justice (MOJ)’s Qualification Commission. In its decision, the Commission found that each had “discredited” the legal profession and engaged in conduct “incompatible with the title of lawyer.” The attorneys have provided legal representation in politically sensitive cases, including in cases related to detained protesters and political opposition figures, and made public statements or allegedly participated in protests regarding violations of the rule of law in Belarus. Their disbarments were based on arbitrary grounds, served to intimidate, hinder and harass the lawyers and interfere with their work, and violated their fundamental rights.
In addition to Belarusian authorities’ expansive use of administrative sanctions and disciplinary proceedings against lawyers, proposed legislative amendments also suggest a tightening of the government’s grip on the legal profession in Belarus. For example, the government is adopting draft amendments to the Advocacy Law that would reportedly allow the executive branch more control over the selection of attorneys and the appointment of bar association leaders and, along with other amendments, further undermine the independence of lawyers and the legal profession.
Pursuant to international standards, lawyers are entitled to perform all of their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment, or improper interference. In addition, lawyers have the same fundamental freedoms and basic rights as all other individuals, including the rights to freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom from discrimination. The government’s severe sanctions against lawyers for the legitimate exercise of their rights and fulfilment of professional obligations and the proposed amendments to the Advocacy Law also violate fundamental principles safeguarding the independence of the legal profession and its role in defending human rights and the rule of law in a democratic society.
This report was prepared by external pro-bono counsel, consultants, and staff attorneys of the American Bar Association Center for Human Rights and reflects their views. It has not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association and therefore should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association as a whole. Further, nothing in this report should be considered as legal advice in a specific case.