Press release February 16, 2021
Belarus: Freedom House Condemns Intensifying Attacks on Human Rights Defenders and Lawyers
Recent raids and arrests are aimed at removing an important safeguard against political persecution.
In response to today’s searches of the homes and offices of dozens of Belarusian human rights activists as well as growing pressure on defense lawyers, Freedom House issued the following statement:
“The raids on activists’ houses are another alarming attempt by the Belarusian regime to silence dissent in the country,” said Marc Behrendt, director of Europe and Eurasia programs at Freedom House. “The authorities must immediately stop fabricating criminal charges and end their harassment campaign against human rights activists and lawyers, who play a vital role as the last bastion of defense for hundreds of people facing persecution for their political views. Attacks on human rights groups, together with continued pressure on attorneys, threaten this essential source of protection and will lead to further international isolation for Belarus.”
On February 16, Belarusian security forces raided the homes and offices of at least 25 human rights defenders, lawyers, and journalists across the country. More than a dozen people were detained and interrogated, and some remain unreachable. Security personnel searched the premises and seized documents and information-technology equipment. The main targets were members of the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) and the Human Rights Center Viasna. Among those detained were BAJ leader Andrei Bastunets and Viasna activists Dzmitry Salauyou, Katsiaryna Bazhko, Uladzimir Malei, Aliaksandr Vaitseshyk, and Leanid Svetsik. According to government sources, the searches were conducted as part of a criminal investigation related to the funding of protests. In addition to BAJ and Viasna, police targeted the homes of representatives of the independent trade union REP and the Belarusian Barys Zvozskau Human Rights House, as well as other activists and independent freelance journalists.
In addition to intensifying attacks on activists, restrictions on lawyers who serve as defense counsel in politically sensitive human rights cases and other limits on the right to legal representation are becoming a common practice in Belarus, where lawyers are often denied access to their clients. Those who work on politically motivated cases are harassed by the government, their licenses are revoked, and criminal cases are increasingly initiated against them. According to Viasna, on February 19, the Ministry of Justice will consider terminating the license of lawyer Lyudmila Kazak, who is currently defending the prominent activist and political prisoner Maria Kalesnikava; the loss of her license would make it impossible for Kazak to continue practicing law.
Previously, on October 15, 2020, the Ministry of Justice revoked the license of Alexander Pylchenko, who had served as the lawyer of both Kalesnikava and political activist Viktar Babaryko. In September 2020, criminal cases were initiated against lawyers Ilya Salei and Maxim Znak, who provided legal advice to political opponents of the regime. Salei spent more than a month in a detention facility and is currently under house arrest, and Znak has been in custody for more than five months. Both are recognized as political prisoners by the international human rights community.
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