Belarus: IBAHRI calls for rejection of proposed law amendments threatening human rights

Wednesday 19 May 2021

The International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) calls for the Parliament of the Republic of Belarus to reject proposed amendments to laws that will infringe the independence of the legal profession, stifle freedom of expression, violate human rights and further undermine the rule of law in Belarus. Of particular concern are four draft laws on:

IBAHRI Co-Chair and former Justice of the High Court of Australia (1996–2006), the Hon Michael Kirby AC CMG commented: ‘We call on the Belarusian Parliament to reject the proposed amendments to the law on “Bar and Lawyers” and to allow lawyers to carry out their functions without intrusion and restriction. The IBAHRI reminds the authorities of Principle 1 of the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers, which states that all persons are entitled to call upon the assistance of a lawyer to protect their rights and to defend them in criminal proceedings. The proposed amendments to the law on “Bar and Lawyers” contravene this international agreement and if adopted would create a precarious legal environment that will impact anyone seeking legal representation and lawyers alike.’

Mr Kirby added: ‘The proposed amendments will perpetuate the unfair treatment of a growing number of lawyers that have been subject to sanctions, disbarment, and detention for their work representing opposition figures, journalists and other arrested citizens. Also, the suggested revisions will further increase dependence of the bar on the Ministry of Justice, which may be the ultimate aim, but is unacceptable for the principle of the independence of lawyers and justice for their clients.’

In April 2021, amendments to the law on ‘Bar and Lawyers’ were proposed by the Lukashenko administration. They include an increase of the competencies exercisable by the Ministry of Justice over the Belarusian Bar and will prohibit both individual lawyers and private firms from representing people charged with certain criminal and/or administrative offences. If the amendments are adopted, only lawyers who are part of a system of state-created ‘consulting offices’ will be allowed to practise.
The bill has passed its first reading.

Many defence lawyers with clients who are human rights defenders, peaceful protestors who dispute the 9 August 2020 presidential election results and/or representatives of the political opposition have found themselves harassed and disbarred.

Amendments to the laws on ‘Countering Extremism’, ‘Rehabilitation of Nazism’ and ‘Mass Events’ were also approved in April by the Belarusian House of Representatives. Individually and collectively, these amendments, if adopted, would facilitate the curtailment of fundamental freedoms of expression, association and assembly in Belarus. They have passed their second reading.

The amendments to the law on ‘Countering Extremism’ broaden the definition of ‘extremist activity’ to include inter alia the distribution of false information, violation of the procedure for organising and holding mass events, and insolence or discreditation of state institutions or representatives of power in Belarus. They also seek to introduce individual liability for ‘extremist activity’ and expand the list of potential ‘extremists’ to include trade unions, non-governmental organisations and mass media. Further, law enforcement officers would be granted permission to use firearms at their discretion.

Regarding the new law on ‘Preventing the Rehabilitation of Nazism’, an expanded list of prohibiting ‘Nazi symbols and attributes’ could lead to the banning of the symbolic white-red-white flag of the current opposition movement. Whilst conscious of the high sensitivities around the contemporary use of symbols that may revive bitter memories of Nazi barbarism suffered by the people of Belarus during the Second World War, the IBAHRI is also conscious of the need to respect freedom of expression and cautions against excessive governmental interference in the free expression of differing views.

The display of old (1918) nationalist symbols that preceded the Nazi period (1933-1945) needs to be distinguished from the display of symbols specifically and uniquely associated with Nazis and their collaborators – who adopted the flag during World War II (1939–1945). Proportionality and respect for diversity and free expression must guide such decisions, in line with democratic liberties. Also, the proposed law on Preventing the Rehabilitation of Nazism should not be used to arbitrarily arrest and silence individuals and organisations deemed to hold unwelcome views.

Approved amendments to the law on ‘Mass Events’ include a near-total ban on mass protests by making permission from the authorities a prerequisite to hold them. The amendments also include a ban on public calls to organise mass events, with media and social network channels prohibited from publishing details of the dates, times and locations of such public events. Equally, live coverage of mass events held in violation of procedure will be illegal.

IBAHRI Co-Chair and Immediate Past Secretary General of the Swedish Bar Association, Anne Ramberg Dr Jur hc, commented: ‘The IBAHRI is deeply concerned by repeated reports of harassment, detention and persecution of individuals and organisations for their opposition to the incumbent administration. We remind the Belarusian authorities that the adoption of such amendments will be an infringement of its international commitments, including to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which reserves an individual’s right to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and freedom of association.’

Ms Ramberg added: ‘The intended amendments will lead to further disintegration of civil rights in Belarus. We urge the Belarusian Parliament to reject the legislative revisions. The rights to free expression, assembly and association are intrinsic to the flourishing of a society with citizens’ wellbeing and the rule of law at the centre.’

Tens of thousands of protestors have been arrested since the disputed August 2020 presidential election that saw the almost 30-year incumbent President Alexander Lukashenko re-elected for a sixth term. Reports of individuals being detained at length without access to legal representation, coupled with further infringements of fundamental freedoms, are of increased concern to the IBAHRI.

ENDS

Notes to the Editor

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