Belarus: The human cost of the crackdown on dissent

Ruth Green, IBA Multimedia JournalistFriday 7 January 2022

An escalating crackdown on civil society following 2020’s disputed presidential election in Belarus – which saw Alexander Lukashenko claim victory – has already provoked international sanctions. Now, the country’s continued attacks on fundamental freedoms are exacting a significant human cost, as a migrant crisis unfolds on the country’s border with Poland.

In June 2021, President Lukashenko rejected EU calls to stop the flow of illegal migrants to the country’s border with the EU. This followed global powers imposing more sanctions against Belarusian officials in response to the removal and arrest of opposition journalist Roman Protasevich, from a grounded plane in Minsk.

A stream of migrants has flooded into Belarus since August after the government relaxed visa requirements for certain countries. By November, thousands of refugees, mainly from Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan, were stranded at the Belarus-Poland border. Many became embroiled in violent clashes with Polish police. At least nine migrants died due to freezing conditions and a lack of humanitarian aid.

The repercussions of the crisis have been felt across Europe. In August, the European Court of Human Rights, which does not have jurisdiction over Belarus, ordered Poland and Latvia to provide food, aid and temporary shelter to migrants on the border. Poland, Latvia and Lithuania each declared a state of emergency and constructed razor-wire fences along the border with Belarus. Troops have also been sent from the UK and Estonia to help Poland stop migrants illegally breaching its border.

Pavel Slunkin worked for the Belarus foreign ministry before fleeing the country in January 2021. Now a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, the former diplomat says Lukashenko weaponised migration in retaliation for EU sanctions. ‘Belarus has never been on the routes of these illegal migrants,’ he says. ‘They usually go from the Mediterranean in the south and if you look at the map you understand why. Lukashenko needed to artificially engineer this crisis just to show European countries the price of imposing sanctions and of fighting with him.’

But the migrant crisis prompted the EU, the US, the UK and Canada to announce a fifth package of sanctions on 2 December that targeted companies, tour operators and hotels implicated in the illegal border crossings. Josep Borrell, the Council of Europe’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, says the crisis is ‘an abhorrent attempt to deflect attention from the regime’s continued disregard for international law, fundamental freedoms and human rights in Belarus.’

Lukashenko needed to artificially engineer this crisis just to show European countries the price of imposing sanctions and of fighting with him

Pavel Slunkin
Former Belarusian diplomat and visiting fellow, European Council on Foreign Relations

Slunkin says this attempt to divide the EU and distract it from Lukashenko’s repressive tactics has failed dismally. ‘While the migrant crisis was ongoing, the main issue on the agenda between the EU and Belarus was migrants – not political prisoners, not falsified elections, not his power, not repression,’ he says. ‘Now, when already thousands of migrants have been brought back to their countries, it seems the EU is coming back to the previous agenda.’

There are an estimated 907 political prisoners currently in Belarus. This includes opposition politicians, journalists and the lawyers that defend them. In December, YouTube blogger and activist Sergei Tikhanovsky received an 18-year prison sentence for his role in organising anti-government protests and inciting social hatred. The trials against Tikhanovsky and others have been criticised for taking place behind closed doors. ‘Belarus needs to re-join the community of free nations and reject autocracy and oppression of its citizens,’ says Hon Justice Michael Kirby, the former Co-Chair of the IBA’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI).

The legal profession is particularly at risk under the current regime, says Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, Director of the IBAHRI and Chair of the Belarus International Committee. This committee called on the UN last year to establish a fact-finding mission to examine allegations of human rights violations in Belarus. ‘It's a travesty of a place that is calling itself a democracy,’ says Kennedy. ‘Judges have been captured by the state and therefore do the bidding of the regime and independent lawyers just trying to do their jobs end up being punished.’

At least 36 lawyers have faced criminal and disciplinary proceedings or disbarment since the presidential election in August 2020. These include leading Belarusian human rights lawyer Liudmila Kazak, who was detained in September 2020 on allegations of being involved in an unauthorised protest the day before she was due to represent opposition activist Maria Kolesnikova in court. In February 2021, she was disbarred and stripped of her licence and has since fled the country.

Kazak says government efforts to silence dissent are only gaining momentum. ‘The state is gradually getting rid of all those people who, to some extent and in some way, have expressed disagreement with the state’s current policies,’ she says. ‘We see that almost all social strata are currently undergoing such a “clean-up”’.

Kazak says one of the most disturbing developments is the powerlessness of the country’s Bar association – the Belarusian Collegium of Lawyers – to protect its members. ‘Our Bar association accepts arbitrary disciplinary proceedings that have already been initiated by the Ministry of Justice and it does not have the opportunity to somehow resist or express its opinion,’ she says. ‘The main proceedings are examined and end with the lawyers being expelled from the Bar. Of course, the Ministry of Justice is a state-owned body, you expect nothing else from it, but it is terrible to see the Bar discrediting itself in this way.’

Concerns over the future of the country’s legal profession were heightened again in November when the Ministry of Justice was granted even greater controls. It now oversees the election of heads of regional bar associations and has the power to dismiss them, while private practice lawyers and law firms are prohibited from representing clients facing criminal or administrative charges. The Belarusian Collegium of Lawyers declined Global Insight’s request for comment on these developments.

In October, Kazak was awarded the 2021 IBA Award for Outstanding Contribution by a Legal Practitioner to Human Rights alongside Maxim Znak, who has acted as legal adviser to presidential opposition candidate Viktor Babaryko and represented ousted opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. The previous month Znak was sentenced to 10 years in prison on a range of charges, including conspiracy to seize power and threaten national security. Kazak’s client, Maria Kolesnikova, was also sentenced to 11 years on related charges.

On 24 December, the Supreme Court in Minsk upheld both sentences in a move denounced by Kirby as ‘deeply offensive to the civilised norms of universal human rights.’ Anne Ramberg, IBAHRI Co-Chair, says their sentencing is indicative of the lack of procedural and legal transparency in the country’s judicial system: ‘It shows clearly that Belarus is not a democracy built on the rule of law.’

Image: Migrants gathered at a logistics center on the Belarusian side of the border with Poland. Djordje Kostic/Shutterstock

Download the IBA Global Insight app

Access expert analysis on international rule of law, business and human rights