Belarus tightens grip on lawyers

Belarussian authorities have been cracking down on dissidents.

They’ve targeted opposition politicians, journalists and now - apparently - lawyers.

Mikhail Kirilyuk was a lawyer in the former Soviet State.

He defended anti-government protesters and publicly criticized President Alexander Lukashenko’s rule.

Then in October, he said he received a tip-off from a KGB affiliate telling him to flee:

“This person wrote me that my license will be revoked and then Belarusian authorities will arrest me not as attorney-at-law but as a former attorney-at-law."

38-year-old Kirilyuk quickly fled to Poland with his parents and children.

His account fits with what more than half a dozen Belarusian lawyers say is a pattern of intimidation and suppression of attorneys by authorities.

Seven lawyers interviewed by Reuters say their licenses were removed after defending protesters or speaking out against authorities.

Many of them allege that authorities monitored confidential client meetings or obstructed their work.

Like Kirilyuk, former lawyer Anton Gashinskiy also had his license terminated.

"The all-seeing eye sees everything, observes, systematizes, accumulates information, and then makes procedural decisions. We can easily turn from a subject of criminal proceedings into an object."

Reuters could not independently corroborate their assertions or the tip-off described by Kirilyuk.

And Lukashenko’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment.

At least 23 Belarusian lawyers have been disbarred since last summer, according to the International Federation for Human Rights.

The justice ministry said it has the power to terminate legal licenses in circumstances stipulated by law.

It added that a number of lawyers had lost their licenses this year because they had committed “gross violations of licensing legislation.”

A new law approved by Lukashenko in June stipulates that only candidates approved by the justice ministry can practice law.

Some attorneys say that is intended to control their profession.

Sergei Ustinov is a member of Belarusian human rights organization, the Legal Initiative:

"Before August 2020, the rules of the game were clear and some legal mechanisms worked, there was no obvious torture in relation to political prisoners. Now we see the complete legal lawlessness in Belarus, the concept of law does not exist in principle."

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