Since Alyaksandr Lukashenka came to power in 1994, the Belarusian state has curtailed judicial independence and flouted the rule of law, analysts say. Yet in years past, stalwart defense lawyers have brought visibility to important cases and conscientious judges have pushed prosecutors and police to adhere to basic principles of fairness and legality.
All that has been swept away, according to legal professionals and opponents of Lukashenka, since the government launched an often-brutal crackdown on dissent following massive pro-democracy protests sparked by an August 2020 presidential election that was widely perceived as falsified.
It is a "catastrophic situation," said prominent Belarusian defense lawyer Natallya Matskevich, who defended would-be 2020 presidential candidates Viktar Babaryka and Syarhey Tsikhanouski against what supporters called politically motivated charges aimed at preventing them from running.
"The mechanism has been perfected for rescinding a lawyer's license for any activity," she told Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. "As a result, the right to legal assistance no longer exists. There are no guarantees."
That mechanism involved amendments to the legal framework for lawyers that included giving the Justice Ministry control over professional organizations, bringing "lawyers under vertical control," Matskevich said.
Matskevich herself lost her license in 2021, after nearly three decades as a lawyer specializing in human rights cases both in Belarus and in international courts. Earlier this year, she and her husband, fellow lawyer Viktar Matskevich, left Belarus.
"I was returning from a regular trip to Vilnius when they dragged me into an office on the border for a talk," she recalled. "They went through my telephone and asked me questions that made it clear there was no place for me under this regime."
"It was clear the repressions were going to reach every person with publicly known views," Matskevich recalled. "Constantly wondering when they would come knocking is not a normal human condition."
"Generally speaking, I think they are persecuting lawyers so that people will accept their own lack of rights as the norm," she concluded. "People are now deprived of any opportunity to express their opinions or gather. In order to keep them off the streets and silent, they make it clear that no one will help you and you won't even have a lawyer."
'The Rules Of The Game'
In October 2020, Judge Alyaksey Patsko resigned after five years on the bench in the southwestern city of Pinsk.
"Before 2020, judges faced a sort of diplomatic pressure," Patsko told RFE/RL's Belarus Service. "There were no orders on how to rule or what sentences to hand down. Just hints and advice within accepted limits. But after the 2019 parliamentary elections, they started tightening the screws."
Patsko said he resigned because he had been directly ordered to sentence all pro-democracy protesters to 15 days in jail. Shortly afterward, he left Belarus.
At the time, there were a number of highly publicized resignations of police officers, investigators, and other officials who balked at the government's harsh crackdown and unwillingness to compromise with the protesters. One since-disbarred lawyer who asked not to be identified told RFE/RL that he expected a wave of judicial resignations similar to Patsko's.
"They had turned the courtroom into a theater," the lawyer said. "Witnesses appeared in balaclavas using pseudonyms. I was amazed -- they were spitting in the faces of the judges…. I was sure that judges and prosecutors would preserve their professional honor and dignity. But, no, they were silent and accepted the rules of the game in a lawless country."
A former police investigator who asked not to be named told RFE/RL's Belarus Service that the huge number of cases generated by the crackdown on dissent "degraded the system."
"The Investigative Committee and prosecutors couldn't carry out proper investigations," the man said, adding to the burden for the courts. "How can you consider a complicated case in just one or two days? Or sometimes in just a few hours. Now the professionalism of judges has been reduced, in a manner of speaking, to just signing off on the sentencing decree."
The disbarred former lawyer who spoke with RFE/RL said he believes judges no longer receive their orders via behind-the-scenes telephone calls but now take their clues from straight from state television.
"The law does not work," the former lawyer said. "The message is clear: Anyone who is against the government must be disposed of."
He added that the long sentences handed down for political activity in the last three years -- up to 20 years in some cases on formal charges such as extremism, terrorism, or treason -- are more severe than those he encountered during years of defending violent criminals.
"Judges just know what is needed these days and work without orders," he said. "That is where the 10-year sentence for lawyer Alyaksandr Danilevich came from. And the eight-year sentence for [former lawyer] Vital Braginets. And the 11 years for former investigator Yauhen Yushkevich. And the 12 years for the managers of the Tut.by website. And the astronomical prison terms for other journalists."
The Vyasna human rights center has recognized 1,451 political prisoners in Belarus.
Even considering the daunting authoritarian conditions under which Belarusian defense lawyers toiled prior to the 2020 crackdown, their work was essential, Matskevich stressed.
"These cases create a historical narrative," she told Current Time. "They are remembered and work their way into the social consciousness. Information introduced into the case materials can have great significance for a long time."
"Now the misfortune in Belarus is that this group of people who are being persecuted for expressing their opinions and for participating in peaceful protests will now find themselves without lawyers," she noted. "Because the remaining lawyers have seen what happens to lawyers who actively defend people's rights and usually won't take on such case. Or they take them only if a court appoints them -- which means they haven't made any agreement with the defendant or their relatives."
"Very few people are left who will take on such cases," she concluded. "They are exhausted by constant harassment, by constantly walking on the edge, and by the premonition -- the certainty -- that tomorrow they will take you away."