With their nation enveloped by winter and snow, Belarusian protesters and pro-democratic opposition forces seeking to bring down the brutal regime of Alexander Lukashenko are preparing for a new season of mass protests.
In interviews with Courthouse News, Belarusian lawyers opened a window into the state of affairs this winter in 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, severe political oppression, 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.
“There is universal jurisdiction,” said Natalia Matskevich, a Minsk lawyer representing pro-democratic figures targeted by the government. “Cases involving victims of torture can be opened in other countries because torture is forbidden by international human rights law.”
Viasna, the human rights center, says it has collected more than 1,000 testimonies of torture victims in 2020. More than 33,000 people were detained and most saw jail time and were ordered to pay high fines, according to Viasna.
“Work is also something that saves us from depression because it is better to work and be in the process than to observe this process from the outside,” Matskevich said in a video link from Minsk, speaking through a translator.
Both Loika and Matskevich said they face harassment and punishment for their work in Belarus.
Matskevich said fellow lawyers who sided with opposition figures have had their licenses revoked and she fears the same could happen to her. One lawyer, a friend of hers, was kidnapped by men in plain clothes, held incommunicado for 20 hours and placed under house arrest. Another lawyer has been in jail for several months, she said.
“It’s not pleasant to work when other attorneys have had their licenses revoked,” she said.
“The situation is quite grim at the moment,” Dzehtsiarou said. He said the Belarusian Bar Association is not an independent body and doesn’t defend lawyers as they should. “They mostly act as a governmental body that even tries to censor what lawyers are saying.”
A case in point is that of Alexander Pylchenko, a prominent lawyer and former chairman of the Minsk City Bar Association who was disbarred after he denounced the violence used against protesters.
His clients included Viktor Babariko, a former Belarusian banker who was imprisoned after entering the presidential campaign, and Maria Kolesnikova, Babariko’s campaign manager. She was kidnapped and arrested when she led protests against Lukashenko following the August elections. Both Babariko and Kolesnikova remain behind bars.
On Oct. 16, Pylchenko was disbarred by the Ministry of Justice on the basis of comments he made to a popular Belarusian news outlet, Tut.By, in the wake of the elections when security forces used stun grenades and rubber bullets against protesters, a first in Belarusian history, and scores of demonstrators came out of jails saying they’d been beaten and tortured.