12 lawyers detained as Belarus cracks down on helping political prisoners

  • Belarusian authorities reportedly detained at least 12 lawyers during mass raids last month.
  • The raids targeted people accused of assisting the nation’s numerous political prisoners, according to rights groups.
  • “Pressure on the legal community through mass arrests and raids … is a violation of citizens’ rights to qualified legal assistance,” a joint statement on the matter read.

Authorities in Belarus detained at least 12 lawyers during mass raids late last month that targeted people who have been helping those imprisoned for political reasons, Belarusian rights groups said Tuesday.

Belarus, which has a population of 9.5 million, was rocked by mass protests during President Alexander Lukashenko’s disputed re-election for a sixth term in August 2020, which the Belarusian opposition and Western nations denounced as fraudulent.

Since then, Belarusian authorities have detained more than 35,000 people, many of whom say they were tortured while in custody, forced to flee the country, and labeled “extremists” by authorities. Authorities also have detained lawyers who provided legal assistance to political prisoners and their families over the past four years.

THOUSANDS OF BELARUSIANS CONVICTED ON POLITICALLY-DRIVEN CHARGES AMID SWEEPING CRACKDOWN ON DISSENT

The latest wave of arrests in which 12 defense lawyers were detained took place on Feb. 28 in many Belarusian cities, but have come to light only in recent days. Rights activists do not know how many of the detained lawyers remain behind bars.

“Pressure on the legal community through mass arrests and raids … is a violation of citizens’ rights to qualified legal assistance,” said a statement by seven Belarusian rights groups, including the oldest and the most prominent one, Viasna.

Alexander Lukashenko

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko speaks during a meeting of the Union State Supreme Council with Russian President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg, Russia, Monday, Jan. 29, 2024. (Pavel Bednyakov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)

Belarus in 2021 banned private law firms, and defense lawyers since then have been made part of state associations that are closely overseen by the Justice Ministry.

Viasna said that since 2020, there have been at least 23 cases of lawyers being detained after defending people that the group believes have been arrested for political reasons. More than 500 lawyers have lost their law licenses and left the profession. Facing repression in Belarus, many have gone abroad.

Pavel Sapelka, a human rights activist with Viasna, told The Associated Press that it is becoming increasingly difficult to find a lawyer for political prisoners.

“There is a catastrophic situation with human rights in Belarus, when not only opposition leaders and activists, but also their lawyers are disappearing into prisons with no communication with the outside world,” Sapelka said.

Viasna has counted 1,418 political prisoners currently behind bars in Belarus, including Nobel Peace Prize laureate and the group’s founder, Ales Bialiatski.

In the Belarusian legal system, convictions are a near-certainty once charges have been filed, but defense lawyers still play an important role. They try to make sure a case is not rushed to a conclusion and that legal procedures are followed, and they serve as important conduits between detainees and their families.

Members of the European Parliament have launched a new campaign to support Belarusian political prisoners by sending them postcards.

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In a statement, members of the European Parliament said they wanted to highlight “the situation of political prisoners that are being kept by Lukashenko’s regime cruelly in prisons, under constant terror and in unhuman conditions.”