In April 2015, the president of Belarus, Aleksandr Lukashenko, gave effect to a law which imposes fines and imprisonment for those who are unemployed. Yes, you read that correctly, anyone who works for fewer than 183 days per year has to pay a special levy to help finance the government. This is the looking glass world of Belarus.
Unsurprisingly, the law violates international human rights and some brave citizens in Belarus have opposed it. Leanid Sudalenka, a lawyer, is among them. He has submitted to court more than 200 complaints on behalf of those who have received notifications under the law since the start of this year. He also has the distinction of being the first lawyer to bring a successful claim against the fee, setting a precedent for the half a million Belarusians who have received the notification so far. He has been publicly named by the authorities as ‘the spongers’ lawyer’. Sudalenka is, therefore, a hero (see story).
This month he was summoned to court by the authorities for ‘participation in unsanctioned protests’ after taking part in peaceful demonstrations in which nearly 4,000 people took to the streets to protest against the law. He has now been found guilty of non-compliance with the legal requirements regarding the organisation and conducting of mass events. He was given a warning as sentence, but one of his colleagues, prosecuted at the same time, was sentenced to 10 days in prison.
I know this only because a long-sought goal in the human rights world was reached last week: a comprehensive global register of attacks on human rights defenders, which has for years been a dream. It was launched by ProtectDefenders.eu, which compiles documented alerts of violations from around the world, so as to provide assistance to the victims, including of course lawyers. If you want to write a letter in support of Sudalenka, full details and relevant addresses are given.
ProtectDefenders.eu is a consortium of 12 NGOs, which benefits from the funding and mechanisms of the EU’s European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), one of the EU’s funding lines. The EIDHR provides, among other things, urgent direct financial or material support for human rights defenders at risk, and there is a small facility to provide ad-hoc grants of up to €10.000 to those in need of urgent support. There are online forms on the ProtectDefenders.eu website for those requiring emergency help.
Because the register is new, its cases go back only to 2016. But they provide interesting statistical information over the last 15 months. Before considering the results, it must be remembered that many violations go unreported.
From the beginning of 2016 until now, 56 human rights defenders were killed, and 321 detained, with 874 violations overall. Of the victims, 92 were lawyers. But lawyers do not make up the largest group of victims: NGO staff (216) and journalists (112) come ahead in this grisly list. The other groups listed are environmentalists, union workers, artists and academics.
There is a long list of possible violations, from the extreme end of murder, kidnapping, physical attacks and torture, to restrictions of movement and administrative harassment at the other end. Happily, the greatest number of violations fall at the lighter end, with detentions and judicial harassment (216), just as in the case of Sudalenka. But there are reports in all categories.
Regarding the topics around which attacks took place, there is again a long list. But most concern democracy and elections (212), with land and environment second (154), and impunity and justice third (131).
It is possible to search by country. I am happy to tell you that no violation has been reported from the UK over the last 15 months. The most recent incident involving a lawyer in a European country was that of Sudalenka.
As you sit in your office and look out of the window at a peaceful scene, think of Tasneem Ahmed Taha Zaki, a human rights lawyer in Sudan, who was arrested in her own office by the authorities at the end of last year and is now in the security wing of Omdurman women’s prison, still without being questioned (see story).
Or when you arrive in court, or return safely to your family this evening, think of Muhammad Jan Gigyani, a human rights lawyer in Pakistan, who was shot by two unknown assailants a month ago on his way to court with his nephew. He was a former president of his local bar association. He regularly took on women’s rights and labour rights cases in courts.
The register maintained by Protectdefenders.eu is vital, permitting such cases – plus follow-up actions taken by the authorities – to be collected in one place. Long may the UK yield a nil search result.
Jonathan Goldsmith is a consultant and former secretary-general at the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe, which represents around a million European lawyers through its member bars and law societies. He blogs weekly for the Gazette on European affairs