MINSK -- Belarusian lawyer Syarhey Zikratski, who has defended independent journalists during the ongoing police crackdown on dissent following a disputed presidential election last year, has left the country for Lithuania after his license to practice law was withdrawn in late March.
Zikratski announced his decision to leave Belarus in a Facebook post on May 3, saying that while abroad he will "do everything" he can "to change the situation in Belarus."
In an interview with RFE/RL, Zikratski said that he is already in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, along with his wife and two children. He said his family has been under enormous stress since rallies started after the August 9 presidential election that returned authoritarian Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who has run the country since 1994, to power. The opposition says the vote was rigged.
"My departure is not about permanent residence [abroad.] As soon as it is possible to go back to Belarus, we will immediately do so," Zikratski said, stressing that after his license was withdrawn, he could not continue doing his job.
Zikratski gained prominence in recent months after he defended several independent journalists, including reporters for the BelaPAN and Belsat news agencies, as well as the program director of the Belarusian Press Club, Ala Sharko. All faced prosecution for their coverage of mass demonstrations in which hundreds of thousands of people have demanded Lukashenka's resignation.
On March 24, a Justice Ministry commission stripped Zikratski of his license, saying that he lacks the proper qualifications. Zikratski's supporters say the move was made because of his activities, namely defending prominent independent journalists.
The 66-year-old Lukashenka was officially declared the victor of the presidential election by a landslide. That has brought people onto the streets on an almost daily basis since as they demand that the longtime strongman step down and new elections be held.
Security officials have cracked down hard on the demonstrators, arresting thousands, including dozens of journalists who covered the rallies, and pushing most of the top opposition figures out of the country.
Several protesters have been killed in the violence and some rights organizations say there is credible evidence of torture being used by security officials against some of those detained.
Lukashenka has denied any wrongdoing with regard to the election and refuses to negotiate with the opposition on stepping down and holding new elections.
The European Union, United States, Canada, and other countries have refused to recognize Lukashenka as the legitimate leader of Belarus and have slapped him and senior Belarusian officials with sanctions in response to the “falsification” of the vote and postelection crackdown.