In mid-August of last year, Alexander Pylchenko made comments that would later change his life and end his career.
The lawyer was speaking as protests broke out in the former Soviet state of Belarus over a disputed presidential election.
Alexander Lukashenko, dubbed the last dictator in Europe, was declared to have won 80% of the vote in the August 9 poll.
His critics shouted badly and accused him of rigging the elections. Thousands took to the streets. Then came a police crackdown on the protesters.
“I made comments [to the press] on the unprecedented violence used by the police and security forces against peaceful protesters; on the inaction of the state to stop the violence; on the inaction of law enforcement agencies in situations where there were clear grounds for initiating criminal investigations; on the powers of law enforcement officials that could have been used to prevent violence and hold perpetrators accountable, ”Pylchenko told Euronews.
Pylchenko has been a lawyer in the Belarusian court system for 30 years. But those fateful comments have changed that.
Just before Christmas, the Qualification Commission of the Ministry of Justice held a hearing in which Pylchenko was disqualified.
But the 55-year-old is not the only one in his industry who has been targeted.
Maxim Znak and Ilya Salei are the attorneys for prominent opposition figure Maria Kalesnikava, who had initially led the election campaign of Viktor Babariko, who had wanted to challenge Lukashenko in the August presidential elections. But, when he was arrested before the elections, preventing him from running, Kalesnikava joined forces with Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. Following the disputed vote, Kalesnikava was detained after refusing to leave the country.
Znak and Salei, like their client, were also arrested on the basis of “actions aimed at causing damage to the national security of the Republic of Belarus”. They are two of the 187 people that the human rights NGO Viasna (Spring) considers political prisoners.
‘There are no independent judges under a dictatorship’
While some may link the dismantling and arrests to a post-election crackdown on opposition to Lukashenko, which has been targeted by protesters, journalists and even musicians, others believe it exposes a long-term problem in Belarus.
“I don’t think we should use August as a starting point for these cases, similar episodes happened before,” said Kanstantsin Dzehtsiarou, professor of human rights law at the University of Liverpool. “The trend is much broader than these three cases and although in many cases the authorities do not reach the revocation of licenses, there are many examples of censorship, influence and hostility towards defense lawyers who work in so-called political cases.”
“As lawyers, we were taught that everything must be done according to the law,” Pylchenko said. “How can we work in this situation? We must pretend to be following the law or be outraged by the inability to work. I dared to show my indignation. They basically said ‘If you can’t work in these conditions then you won’t work at all’ and they deprived me of my license.
“Under a dictatorship, there can be no independent judges and courts. Our country is no exception. It is designed in [such] a way in which there is only one person who has the power to make decisions: the president, without limits to his stay in power. “
‘Without justice, there is no judicial power’
Dzehtsiarou believes that the judicial system was flawed from the beginning and is a holdover from the country’s Soviet past.
“It can hardly be said that there is a rule of law in Belarus at the moment,” Dzehtsiarou added. “There is the rule of power, perhaps the rule of necessity but not the rule of law. Some form of law exists only for the people but does not exist for the authorities. The decisions in so-called political cases are predetermined, the makers decision makers are hardly independent.
“It has become absolutely clear that there is no justice and no judiciary. The fact that masked police officers give generic evidence of sending people to jail for 10-15 days shows that there is no independent judiciary in political cases. Almost none of the cases in Belarusian courts are acquitted and the system leans heavily toward conviction.
“These cases are well known and their main objective may be to prevent other lawyers from actively participating in political cases.”
However, defense lawyers in Belarus are not entirely redundant, according to Dzehtsiarou. He said they play a role in making it fairer than it would be otherwise. While they may not overturn convictions or acquit innocent people, they still play a role in introducing a transparency measure into the system itself, he added.
“In the grand scheme of things, this might not change the whole story, but it does make a difference in what the prosecutor can do because having a lawyer there means that whatever the prosecutor does can be made public,” he said. Dzehtsiarou.
“Having a person there limits the prosecutor’s ability to falsify documents, put words in the defendant’s mouth, etc. It is always a question of degree; in other countries, a good lawyer can help you win the case. In Belarus, that is probably not the case. However, having a good lawyer can help eliminate wrongdoing from prosecutors and police.
“Generally, however, lawyers understand the impossibility of breaking the existing system and are counting on making the best of bad results.”
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George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism