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Control over lawyers threatens human rights

Publication of a mission report

Minsk-Paris-Geneva,June 29, 2018 – The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders,a partnership between FIDH and OMCT, in collaboration with the ParisBar and Human Rights Centre “Viasna”, today released a report documentingrestrictions on the independence of lawyers in Belarus. Based on aninvestigation conducted in January 2018, the report criticises the executivepower’s stranglehold on the capacity of lawyers defending cases which theauthorities consider to be ‘sensitive’ to practise their profession.

In Belarus, lawyers defendingcases considered by the authorities to be ‘troublesome’ are generally exposedto retaliatory measures, which can culminate in their expulsion, against abackground of changes to the legal framework that have gradually placedBelarusian bars, and lawyers themselves, under the direct authority of theMinistry of Justice. Such retaliatory measures are often initiated followingrepression by the authorities of large-scale protests, as in 2010 and 2017.

In the course of the past fewyears, the bars have been stripped of their primary function, which is toguarantee independence and ensure the regulation of the profession. Access tothe profession and its organisation now fall under the almost exclusive competence of civil servants in the Ministryof Justice.

Today in Belarus, lawyers can havetheir right to practise withdrawn for any reason, as soon as they take on casesconsidered by the authorities to be ‘troublesome’, said theObservatory and the Paris Bar.

Over recent years, the Ministry of Justicehas granted itself the power to summon lawyers to appear before a commission toverify their competence, which has become a key censorship tool. Thiscommission, which formerly examined lawyers’ qualifications every five years,can now summon any lawyer at any time, on an extraordinary basis. Thecommission undertakes an oral examination, which is difficult to challenge. Thelawyers interviewed by the mission delegation in January underlined that,during the examination, the commission does not take account of lawyers’ areasof specialisation and can therefore ask questions outside their field ofexpertise. In addition, the legal framework does not specify the number ofquestions that can be asked, nor the duration of interviews, thereby openingthe door to arbitrary treatment of the lawyers under examination.

This targeted harassment through thequalification commission not only has the effect of penalising the freeexercise of the profession but also undermines the rights of the defence and the rightto a fair trial in Belarus”, added theObservatory and the Paris Bar. It appears vital and urgent to review thecontrol of the executive over the bars in Belarus and to create the conditionsfor lawyers to be able to practise freely and independently, in accordance withinternational law.

The Observatory and the Paris Bar call onthe Belarusian authorities to guarantee in all circumstances the protection oflawyers in the country, in particular those specialised in defendingfundamental freedoms, and to ensure more generally the protection of all humanrights defenders in Belarus.

The investigation reportis available in English, French and Russian.

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