At the beginning of the month, new government-sponsored amendments to the Belarusian Law on the Bar and Legal Advocacy came into effect that have been widely criticized as intended to impose government control over the legal profession and undermine its independence.
The new legislation comes in the wake of a massive crackdown on lawyers individually in which about three dozen defense attorneys — many defending prominent opposition figures and anti-government activists — have been deprived of their law licenses.
“Lawyers are people who defend citizens from the authorities,” Dzmitry Layeuski, a prominent defense attorney who was stripped of his license in July, told RFE/RL’s Belarus Service. “Now lawyers themselves need defense. But what we see is indifference from the public.”
On October 25, lawyer Natallya Matskevich, whose clients included jailed would-be presidential candidates Viktar Babaryka and Syarhey Tsikhanouski, was expelled from the Belarusian Collegium of Lawyers, the country’s bar association, for unspecified alleged wrongdoing. She was at least the fifth attorney working to defend Babaryka to lose her license.
The government’s targeting of lawyers is part of a massive crackdown on dissent following the disputed August 2020 presidential election that handed a sixth term to strongman leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Thousands of people have been arrested, and most top opposition figures have either been jailed or pushed out of the country.
The European Union, the United States, Canada, and other countries have refused to recognize Lukashenka as Belarus’s legitimate leader and have imposed sanctions on him and several senior Belarusian officials in response to the “falsification” of the vote and the postelection crackdown.
However, Minsk’s latest moves include changing the rules of legal accreditation to undermine the already-compromised independence of the Belarusian bar association, with potential long-term effects for the entire country.
Attacking The Defenders?
“The crackdown on lawyers who dare to do their job and assist all those who are arbitrarily detained or otherwise harassed by the Belarusian government is a sign of a severe deterioration of the human rights situation in Belarus, a deterioration that will shape [Lukashenka’s] sixth term in office and beyond,” wrote international rights activist Ewelina Ochab in a column for Forbes in August.
The new amendments to the Law on the Bar and Legal Advocacy were passed in May and took effect on November 1. They restrict which lawyers and law firms are able to take on the defense of clients facing criminal or administrative charges.
All lawyers applying for licenses must be approved in advance by the Justice Ministry and the amended law empowers the ministry to develop and enforce a code of professional ethics for lawyers. It creates a Qualification Commission, under the control of the Justice Ministry. The Justice Ministry now controls the “election” of heads of regional bar associations and has the power to dismiss them. The ministry also has the power to demand any documents from bar associations or individual lawyers.