A London-based law firm has published online a dossier
on alleged torture by Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's regime in a bid to bring private prosecutions against him wherever he travels.
The law firm, McCue and Partners, was approached earlier this year by Belarusian citizens who say they were tortured by the regime since December's disputed presidential election.
Belarusian authorities detained hundreds of demonstrators, including opposition presidential candidates, after a protest in Minsk in December against the announcement that Lukashenka had won a fourth presidential term. Many of those arrested say they were tortured -- including former presidential candidate Ales Mikhalevich, who in February likened the KGB detention center
where he was held to a concentration camp.
The European Union responded to the crackdown on the opposition and the torture allegations in January by imposing an EU travel ban on Lukashenka and other Belarusian officials.
Matthew Jury, a partner at McCue and Partners, told RFE/RL that the 68-page dossier also includes testimony about the disappearances of opposition figures in Belarus during the past decade.
"Due to the current travel ban on Lukashenka traveling within Europe, there is no possibility at present of him traveling to our jurisdiction here in England," Jury said. "As a result, what we have done -- what the people of Belarus have done -- [is to make] available a prosecution file."
He explained that it is "universally available as an open source document for download on the Internet so that private lawyers, nongovernmental organizations, or even governments can file for the arrest of Lukashenka should he travel to their jurisdictions."
Jury, who has led the law firm's investigation into human rights abuses in Belarus, said the prosecution kit packs were "a first step" for torture victims who must look outside of Belarus for justice.
Iryna Bahdanava is a member of the Free Belarus Now campaign that initially contacted McCue and Partners about preparing a criminal case in the United Kingdom against Lukashenka. She also is a family member of detained opposition candidate Andrey Sannikau.
Bahdanava told RFE/RL that the group's aim was "not to alleviate our suffering but to ensure that future generations of Belarusians are afforded the rights and freedoms" that they are now being denied.
"There will be a private criminal case opened against Lukashenka [in the U.K.] by people who suffered [from his regime]," Bahdanava said. "It will be only the first part of legal proceedings against Lukashenka. The second part will be a civil case against him on behalf of all those who were arrested and beaten on Independence Square [on December 19, 2010] and who still suffer repression."
Building On Precedent
The evidence collected by Jury during the past six months includes witness statements from Belarusians who say they were arrested, imprisoned and tortured during an ongoing crackdown by Lukashenka's regime against opposition candidates and their supporters.
"As far as we are aware, this approach hasn't been taken before. And really, what our intent is [is] to put the power to bring [trials against] human rights abusers and those who would commit crimes against humanity into the hands of civil society rather than solely in the hands of national governments or international organizations," Jury said. "By making this prosecution file universally available, we allow the victims themselves to decide where and when they bring a prosecution rather than leaving it in the hands of politicians and diplomats."
Jury said he hoped the idea of the "prosecution kits" would become a template for keeping pressure on human rights abusers by making it easier to bring "universal jurisdiction" cases against them.
"Universal jurisdiction is largely governed by international law. Certain crimes attract universal jurisdiction. Those crimes include torture, hostage taking, and other crimes against humanity such as slavery, war crimes, and genocide," Jury said. "Quite simply, where torture occurs under the convention against torture national governments have the power to bring a prosecution against anyone who would be alleged to have committed torture [and] who entered their jurisdictions."
Indeed, Jury and his law firm have pioneered the use of international jurisdictions to pursue individuals and groups that might normally see themselves as being immune from prosecution.
Belarusian political analyst Alyaksey Karol told RFE/RL’s Belarus Service that the lawyers’ initiative has “more moral value than legal” but says that value may be high.
"As long as Lukashenka is at the head of the Belarusian state and is considered to be the president, I think that this process is impossible," Karol said. "But the initiative may have effects in terms of the enlightenment of the population -- and not only in Belarus but also in foreign countries."
He says that "people will know more about who Lukashenka actually is and what he is guided by in his affairs. And it also can contribute to improving the human rights situation in Belarus through attracting international attention to violations of these rights."
McCue and Partners have previously gone after the Real IRA, Libya's ousted ruler Muammar Qaddafi, and the armed wing of Hamas over financial payments made to the families of suicide bombers.
Jan Maksymiuk and Uladzimer Glod of RFE/RL's Belarus Service contributed to this report