Human Rights Watch (HRW) has denounced the "arbitrary" suspension and disbarment of more than two dozen Belarusian lawyers amid an ongoing crackdown on civil society following last year’s disputed presidential election, saying the measures targeted lawyers who had publicly spoken out about human rights violations and defended clients in politically motivated cases.
At least 27 lawyers have been disbarred or suspended for speaking out against a wave of repression in Belarus, Anastasia Zlobina, assistant researcher for Europe and Central Asia at the New York-based watchdog, said in a statement on October 26.
Zlobina said the reprisals not only prevent lawyers from practicing their profession, but also undermine their clients’ right to legal counsel.
"In addition to the obstruction of their work, lawyers have faced personal harassment such as threats, arbitrary detention, raids, revoked licenses, and administrative and criminal charges," she noted.
The onslaught against the lawyers sends "a chilling message of intimidation to their colleagues," she said.
The condemnation comes after the Belarsian Collegium of Lawyers disbarred Natallya Matskevich, a lawyer known for having defended prominent political prisoners in Belarus, including jailed would-be presidential candidate Viktar Babaryka.
Babaryka was arrested in the runup to last year's August election. In July this year, the former banker was sentenced to 14 years in prison for alleged bribery and money laundering.
Matskevich’s disbarment and the suspension earlier this month of Yauhen Pylchenka, another lawyer who also represented Babaryka, came soon after they had filed an appeal in Babaryka’s case.
The lawyers' colleagues rejected these sanctions as "absurd" and based on "ridiculous" allegations.
Belarus was engulfed by protests last year after strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka secured a sixth consecutive term in a vote the opposition and the West say was rigged.
In response, the government has cracked down hard on the pro-democracy movement, arresting thousands of people and pushing most of the top opposition figures out of the country.
Lukashenka, who has run the country since 1994, has denied any wrongdoing in the election and has refused to negotiate with the opposition on stepping down and holding new elections.
The European Union, the United States, Canada, and other countries have refused to recognize Lukashenka as Belarus's legitimate leader and have imposed sanctions on him and several senior Belarusian officials in response to the "falsification" of the vote and the postelection crackdown.