Belarus: Lawyers Ludmila Kazak and Maksim Znak win the 2021 IBA Human Rights Award
The 2021 International Bar Association (IBA) Award for Outstanding Contribution to Human Rights has been jointly bestowed upon lawyers Ludmila Kazak and Maksim Znak (pictured left) for their commitment to defending democratic principles and human rights in Belarus.
Sponsored by LexisNexis, the Award is conferred annually to a legal practitioner who has made an outstanding contribution to the promotion, protection and advancement of the human rights of any group of people, particularly with respect to their right to live in a fair and just society under the rule of law. It will be presented by the IBA Human Rights Law Committee (HRLC) on Thursday 28 October during the virtual Section on Public and Professional Interest Awards ceremony. IBA HRLC Co-Chair, Alexa Koenig, and the Director of the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute, Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, will introduce the honourees.
Throughout her 22 years of practice, Ms Kazak has represented human rights defenders, journalists, public activists and political prisoners. Most recently she acted as the lawyer for Maria Kolesnikova, member of the Presidium of the Coordination Council formed to oppose President Lukashenko’s rule. Ms Kolesnikova is currently imprisoned after being kidnapped by the authorities. On 24 September 2020 – the day before she was due to appear in court with her client, Ms Kolesnikova - Ms Kazak was detained by three unknown persons, forced into an unmarked car and taken to the Central District Department of Internal Affairs. The Belarusian authorities alleged that she had been detained for her participation in an unauthorised protest in Minsk on 30 August 2020 and failure to obey the command of a police officer. Despite denying that she was at the rally, Ms Kazak was found guilty and fined. On 19 February 2021, Ms Kazak was disbarred from practising law by the Ministry of Justice’s Qualification Commission on Advocacy Issues (the Commission); her lawyer was not allowed to attend her hearing. In April, the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) published a statement condemning this decision and calling for Ms Kazak’s professional reinstatement.
Ms Kazak stated: ‘I am very proud of this award, as it recognizes the contribution the Belarusian principled advocates have made in the defence of human rights. Maxim Znak was sentenced to 10 years in prison, more than 30 Belarusian lawyers including myself were deprived of their licenses. The Belarusian legal profession is under the complete control of the state. Now it is particularly important for us to feel the support of our colleagues and know that we are a part of the international legal community.’
Mr Znak is a human rights lawyer and presidium member of the Coordination Council in Belarus. He represented ousted opposition leader, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, and was the legal adviser for presidential candidate Viktor Babaryko, who was imprisoned in June 2020 before President Lukashenko’s re-election. On 7 September 2020, Mr Znak expressed his opinion via video stream on the abduction of Ms Kolesnikova and the abuse of power by law enforcement officials in Belarus. On 9 September, his apartment and office were searched, and he was subsequently kidnapped by masked men. Reports state that he managed to text the word ‘masks’ before his phone was confiscated. Mr Znak was charged with seeking to harm national security under Part 3 of Article 361 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus, and is currently being held in the Investigative Detention Facility No. 1 in Minsk. He has since been accused of ‘conspiracy to seize power’ alongside Ms Kolsnikova – this charge could result in a jail term of up to 12 years. On 18 September, Mr Znak went on hunger strike to expose ‘the absurdity of prosecuting people for freely expressing their opinions’, according to his lawyer Dmitry Laevsky. The IBAHRI released a statement expressing concern over Mr Znak’s continued detention and calling for his immediate release.
Mr Znak stated: ‘An award is similar to a punishment. Both are reaction to one’s deeds. It is a great honour to get this award from fellow lawyers. It is a shame that those who seek justice and truth in Belarus do not get awards from our Ministry of Justice. It is a tragedy that they are deprived of their licenses and some get prison sentences. This must be changed and this will be changed. I hope that will happen soon. The law should equally protect the rights of any person, regardless of his beliefs, views and interests. And it is the duty of the lawyers to make this equal protection work.’
IBA President Sternford Moyo said, ‘By conferring this award, the IBA is standing in solidarity with Ms Kazak, Mr Znak, and other human rights lawyers facing persecution in Belarus. Their courage in standing up to a corrupt administration and fighting for democratic rights is truly commendable. Ms Kazak’s disbarment and Mr Znak’s imprisonment are in direct contradiction to the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers, notably Article 16, which stipulates that governments protect lawyers against prosecution or administrative, economic or other sanctions for carrying out their professional duties.’
IBAHRI Director, Helena Kennedy, commented: ‘The IBAHRI praises Ms Kazak and Mr Znak for their incredible bravery and commitment to justice against enormous odds. Over the past year, Belarusians have faced gross human rights violations and the situation for lawyers has become increasingly desperate. The treatment of Ms Kazak and Mr Znak is utterly deplorable and exemplifies the stifling of freedom of expression in the country and the erosion of the Rule of Law. We must, as an international community, continue to highlight the injustices happening in Belarus and call for the independence of the legal profession to be protected.’
The IBA Award for Outstanding Contribution by a Legal Practitioner to Human Rights was presented during a virtual ceremony of the SPPI on Thursday 28 October 2021.
Notes to the Editor
- Information about the IBA Award for Outstanding Contribution by a Legal Practitioner to Human Rights is available at: www.ibanet.org/Committees/Divisions/Legal_Practice/IBA-Human-Rights-Award.aspx
- The International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI), established in 1995 under Founding Honorary President Nelson Mandela, is an autonomous and financially independent entity, working to promote, protect and enforce human rights under a just rule of law, and to preserve the independence of the judiciary and the legal profession worldwide.
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