MINSK, BELARUS - Belarusian authorities have unrolled systematic and widespread repression targeting lawyers who represent clients in politically motivated cases or who shed light on rights abuses, Human Rights Watch, the Belarusian Association of Human Rights Lawyers, and the Right to Defence Project said in a report released today.

The 95-page report, “‘I Swear to Fulfill the Duties of Defense Lawyer Honestly and Faithfully’: Politically Motivated Crackdown on Human Rights Lawyers in Belarus,” documents the near complete government takeover of the legal profession in Belarus and repression against human rights lawyers by Aliaksandr Lukashenka’s government.

“By systematically retaliating against human rights lawyers, undermining their rights, and violating the rights of their clients in politically motivated cases, Belarusian authorities have turned the judicial system into a mockery of justice and deprived Belarusians of their right to a fair trial and equal protection under the law,” said Anastasiia Kruope, assistant Europe and Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Belarus should put an end to politically motivated prosecutions of lawyers and reinstate the independence of the legal profession.”

Between September 2023 and April 2024, Human Rights Watch interviewed 19 Belarusian lawyers and analyzed the publications on the bar associations’ websites over the past three years. Together with the Belarusian Association of Human Rights Lawyers and Right to Defence Project, Human Rights Watch also analyzed more than 140 cases of lawyers losing their licenses based on publicly available data and interviews and found a pattern of arbitrary and politically motivated license revocation.

The government’s targeting of human rights lawyers is a part of a wider government-led crackdown on any form of dissent, which swept the country in the run-up to and following the 2020 presidential elections and mass public protests against Lukashenka’s moves to secure the presidency for a sixth consecutive term.

In its 2023 and 2024 reports, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights found that Belarusian authorities’ violations, as a part of their efforts to eviscerate all forms of dissent, “may amount to crimes against humanity,” including the “crime of persecution.”

In Belarus, lawyers are a lifeline for their clients who are prosecuted for the peaceful exercise of their rights or for attempting to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms. Clients in such cases face serious rights violations, including torture and other forms of ill-treatment, and are often held in harsher conditions than the rest of the prison population.

Belarusian authorities create numerous obstacles to prevent lawyers from effectively carrying out their professional duties from the moment they take on a politically motivated case. The authorities deny lawyers access to their clients and eavesdrop on and record confidential attorney-client conversations. The authorities also undermine the defense by forcing lawyers to sign broad nondisclosure agreements and arbitrarily closing trials to the public, which prevents lawyers from sharing case materials with independent experts or exposing serious rights violations against their clients to the public.

For the first time in contemporary Belarusian history, lawyers are being imprisoned on political charges in retaliation for representing their clients in politically motivated cases. At least six lawyers—Maksim Znak, Aliaksandr Danilevich, Vital Brahinets, Anastasiya Lazarenka, Yuliya Yurhilevich, and Aliaksei Barodka—are currently serving sentences ranging from 6 to 10 years on bogus politically motivated charges.

Since September 2020, Belarusian authorities have arbitrarily arrested at least 23 lawyers and then used those arrests as a pretext to suspend them from representing their clients in politically motivated cases and to revoke their licenses. Many lawyers have been arbitrarily detained and interrogated and experienced other harassment and threats.

“Despite all the government’s efforts, Belarusian human rights lawyers have refused to end their work just because their licenses are revoked,” said Maryia Kolesava-Hudzilina, president of the Belarusian Association of Human Rights Lawyers. “Even from exile, our lawyers continue the fight, using international protection mechanisms to seek accountability for human rights abuses in Belarus.”

In violation of international principles protecting the independence of the bar, the Justice Ministry exercises full control over the legal profession in Belarus by overseeing the admission of lawyers into the profession, with the authority to revoke lawyers’ licenses, regulate the way lawyers discharge their duties, and strip lawyers’ self-governing bodies of all vestiges of independence. President Lukashenka has said that the work of lawyers should be viewed as that of a “statesman,” carrying out the tasks assigned by the state and protecting its interests.

In light of the control exercised over the formation of the Belarusian bar’s executive bodies and their work, the Belarusian Republican Bar Association and the regional bar associations cannot be considered independent self-governing bodies representing the interests of all lawyers in Belarus, the groups said.

Following major 2021 amendments to the Law on the Bar and Practice of Law in the Republic of Belarus, lawyers can no longer work individually or open law firms. Instead, they are required to join legal consultation offices, which are created and supervised by regional bar associations in coordination with the Justice Ministry.

The Belarusian government should immediately stop politically motivated prosecutions, end all harassment and attacks on lawyers, and ensure that they can discharge their duties without interference or fear of reprisal. The Belarusian bar should end politically motivated retaliation against its members, protect the interests of lawyers and their clients, and uphold the independence of the legal profession.

International actors should call on Belarusian authorities to adhere to their international obligations, stop using the judiciary as a repressive tool, release all political prisoners, and ensure that Belarusian lawyers face no obstacles in carrying out their professional duties in the best interests of their clients.

“Belarusian bar associations failed to protect the legal profession in Belarus and became the vehicle of the state’s agenda and repression,” said Maksim Palavinka, expert with the Right to Defence Project. “Instead, they became a reliable tool of the state and have shown themselves more than willing to participate in politically motivated retaliation against lawyers by the authorities.”