[In today’s episode of Some call it Belarus, we talk about the situation of law and an independent judiciary in Belarus and briefly cover the processes following arrests made during protests after the presidential elections in December 2010.]
Season I Episode III – The situation of Law in Belarus
In the following, the attempt will be made to provide an account on the situation in regard to the availability of legal protection and independence of the judiciary in Belarus. Given the importance of political rights for possibilities of broader scale societal change, a focus shall be put on the availability and implementation of political and Human Rights.
From a point of view of structure, the Belarusian legal system is divided into the country’s constitutional courts and its universal courts. This group of universal courts then consists of the oblasts’ and town courts as well as the Minsk city court, economic courts in the oblasts and Minsk as well as finally the Supreme Court of the Republic of Belarus. These universal courts deal with trials covering administrative, criminal and economic topics as well as those with regard to the military. The constitutional court is tasked with controlling new legislation and their alignment with the constitution. From the 12 constitutional court judges, six are appointed by the president of the republic and another six elected by the Council of the Republic while the presiding judge is appointed by the president and approved by the Council. In light of an independent judiciary system, various allegations of politically motivated imprisonments in Belarus have been made, i.e. by the Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers to the United Nations Human Rights Council (2006, 2007, 2008), as well as the appointed Special Rapporteur on the situation of Human Rights in Belarus of the United Nations Human Rights Council and the United Nations Human Rights Council, labelling violations of Human Rights “systemic and systematic” are urging the Belarusian Government to “carry out a comprehensive reform of the justice sector and bar associations in order to guarantee the full independence and impartiality of the judiciary, the presumption of innocence, the right to a fair trial and the right to an effective review of sentences and convictions by a higher tribunal established by law and to freely chosen legal representation throughout all proceedings, as well as the availability of information on the implementation of all sentences” (source document).
While in general, the Belarusian constitution and other acts guarantee the independence of the judiciary, the presidential administration and ministry of justice have considerable leverage. During the process of appointment of judges, viable candidates are listed on ‘reserve lists’ and then examined by both the regional head of the department of justice and the chairman of the court offering the vacant position. Candidates for juridical positions are then proposed by the Minister of Justice along with the Chairman of the Supreme Court, both of which are appointed by the President) to the President of the Republic of Belarus who has then the right to appoint or decline candidates without publication of reasons.
The provision of political and Human Rights shall here be exemplified by the case of legal persecutions made in the aftermath of political demonstrations in Minsk on December 19th 2010, following the results of the presidential elections in Belarus earlier that same month. The following account is based upon the study ‘Square 2010’ conducted by the Legal Transformation Centre based on the hearings and data obtained on the 14 trials taking place between February 17th and October 12th 2011.
The trials were based upon arrests originally made on December 19th 2010 during protests in Minsk. After originally more than 600 people detained for participation, among them 6 of the 9 opponent candidates to the incumbent Alyaksandr Lukashenka, eventually 14 criminal cases were heard with direct connections to the presidential elections and subsequent protests. All cases ended with guilty verdicts ranging from sentences of 6 years in prison to financial fines. During the period of and leading up to the trials, several of the convicted were denied private consultations with their lawyers, they were partially relocated between penitentiary facilities on a frequent basis with little to no contact to the outside world and were at times deprived of sanitary facilities. Additionally there were reported cases where the prisoners were forced to strip naked and physically punished. During the trials several of the accused activists were not allowed any direct or indirect communication with their lawyers during questioning and while the courts admitted an overall of 117 motions against the defence, a total of 14 were admitted against the prosecution.
Recommended reading: Legal Transformation Center Lawtrend ‘Square 2010 – through the eyes of Belarusian Human Rights defenders”, made available here.
Next week: Episode IV – The Economic situation of Belarus
Picture credit: lempkin