Authorities’ Treatment of Tatiana Kouzina Highlights Efforts to Muzzle, Disempower Lawyers
On July 8, a court in Minsk ordered Tatiana Kouzina, a prominent Belarusian researcher and policy analyst, be held in pretrial custody for two months.
Security officials detained Kuzina at the Minsk airport on June 28, as she was going through passport control for her Georgia-bound flight. Her family had no information about her whereabouts until the next morning, when a law enforcement officer called to inform them Kouzina was being held at the city’s Okrestina detention center “as a suspect in a criminal investigation.” Kouzina’s lawyer saw her there later that day but was unable to clarify the nature of the investigation. After a court approved ten days’ detention, Kouzina was moved to Minsk’s remand prison, where she has remained since.
By now, Kouzina’s lawyer knows the charges against her, but he cannot disclose them because he was required to sign a nondisclosure agreement.
This may sound absurd, but it is typical in politically motivated criminal cases in Belarus. Courts hold hearings behind closed doors and force lawyers to sign nondisclosure agreements, prohibiting them from commenting on all matters related to the case, including the actual charges.
Since mass peaceful protests began last summer, authorities have jailed hundreds on politically motivated charges, with blatant disregard for their rights to liberty, to legal counsel, and a fair trial. Law enforcement took people into custody and interrogated them for hours without letting them contact their lawyers. Belarusian lawyers also reported that authorities prevented them from speaking to their clients confidentially and filmed their meetings with clients, sharing the footage with state-sponsored media outlets.
Lawyers who work on politically motivated cases face harassment and intimidation by the authorities. They are also targeted with criminal charges and biased inspections by the Qualification Commission on Advocacy Issues. At least 17 lawyers have been disbarred since October 2020, in retaliation for speaking out against human rights abuses, joining collective letters and petitions, and refusing to sign broad and vague nondisclosure agreements. The May 2021 amendments to the Law on Bar and Advocates stripped Belarusian lawyers of the last pretense that the state would respect their independence.