How I defend Belarusians, when anyone can be criminalized
8 October 2020 | Maria Melekhina, KYKY
“In a few months we will reverse roles with those who made illegal decisions on our arrests. Once again we will look at each other through the prison bars”. A lawyer and a member of the Coordination Council Mikhail Kiriliuk showed KYKY media how these days political cases are manufactured and sentences are passed via specific examples.
How they began to prosecute for psalms in Belarus
One of the political show cases I handled was a process regarding Zmitser Khvedaruk. The man was arrested near Minsk Red Church just with the Bible in his hands. He called me and said that he had been arrested at 8.20 p.m. After his call I drove out to Minsk Central District Police Department. They didn’t tell me where my client was: maybe he was there, maybe not. Me and his relatives stayed under the police office till midnight, but cut no ice.
Before the trial I was allowed to have a look at the case and even take a photo. According to the record Zmitser was arrested at 8.25 p.m. However, he called me at 8.20 – I still have this call record in my phone. Also, Zmitser was said to shout “Shame!” and different slogans.
In the court I asked the prosecuting witness what language my client was using when shouting out the slogans. He answered: “The official language”.
Then they understood that I backed them into a corner, and started to bend over backwards, saying Zmitser used both languages – Russian and Belarusian. It was ridiculous, because Zmitser speaks only Belarusian. His close friends – witnesses for the defendant confirmed it. Had Zmitser cried slogans, he would do it in Belarusian. Then the judge asked the witness for the defendant: “Did you shout any slogans?”. The girl who was near the church with Zmitser answered: “We read psalm 22. Could that be considered to be a slogan?”. I saw Zmitser in the court by Skype. It was the same Bible in his hands – they didn’t take it away at Akrestsina detention center. As a result he was sentenced to seven days of detention.
The judge told me: “As for the time of the arrest, lawyer, I will amend it in the court decision”. Just to be clear: in case the records had any mistakes, the judge should have either canceled it or reported it out.
How could the records be amended right in the court decision? After all, it is signed by a policeman, not by the judge. It’s a complete disregard of the Code of Execution Procedure. The evidence from the defense party was disregarded as well. For this reason, we can make a conclusion that today the appeals from the defense party in political cases have no standing.
One more significant thing. According to the article 2.8 of the Code of Execution Procedure of Belarus, the authority handling an administrative process is obliged to provide the right for defense. Had he not provided that – it is a ground for cancellation of the administrative order. Zmitser wasn’t provided the right for defense. As his lawyer I wasn’t allowed to visit him neither at the Police Department nor at Akrestsina detention center. This alone should be enough for the release of my client right in the court room.
However, the court ignored this paragraph of the Code of Execution Procedure.
How judges who are “loyal to the regime” lead the country to anarchy
I have been working as a lawyer for 15 years. And I am convinced that a judge needs not only professional experience and knowledge, but also an ethical roadmap. A person in this position must have the ideas of right and wrong. Otherwise, they take the risk to turn into a corrupted bastard despite all the professionalism. And the corruption in our court system is not only about bribes but also about ranks. Their careers thrive on other
people’s prison sentences.
They perceive political cases as a trampoline for their career growth. It only takes to guess the mood of the chiefs.
I don’t have facts – it’s more of theoretical conclusions. Just imagine: there are 30 judges in the region court, divided into three colleges: administrative, civil and criminal. Most political cases ultimately fall under the administrative law. And there are ten judges from thirty who specialize in that. Only three judges from those ten would take political cases in hand. Today we see that such cases are worked on by the same people. And the rest of the judges… There is a huge number of cases – not only political ones. People still buy cars, apartments, receive inheritance, get married, divorce etc. And when non-political cases fall into the hands of those judges, they process them quite fairly.
Thank God, the “ideologically reliable” ones, who constantly review political cases leave their signs on the court decisions. I’m sure that eventually all these cases will be investigated once again. And these investigations will be much easier to handle than the ones regarding riot policemen whose faces are hidden under balaclavas. The only difference between them is the amount of responsibility – of which judges have more.
Taking a knowingly false decision is a much more socially dangerous action than beating someone with a bludgeon. Firstly, it’s a discredit to all justice, and secondly, it’s a step towards anarchy. They instigate people to take more radical actions. Today many social media users start calling the Coordination Council punching bags who do nothing. They say people need to take up axes and pitchforks, go fight against the riot police, and then the changes will come. Who can be blamed for such moods? You know, Lynch law appeared in America not without reason. When the court system disregards the problem, people start seeking vengeance through their own efforts.
How to initiate a case for the honour of the Belarusian basketball
Yelena Leuchanka (famous Belarusian basketball player – KYKY note) was supposed to visit Turkey for medical treatment purposes – the trip was planned long ago. She wanted to fix the wounded knee in order to be able to play the season. However, she was arrested right at the airport on the date of departure. I think it was simply revenge for her active political position. They could have just called and said: “Yelena, you can’t leave – tomorrow you should come to the court. You won’t be let out of the country”. However, they followed her for 42 kilometers on the way to the airport just to demonstrate their power.
I know that the police phoned Yelena earlier and asked: “Yelena, why do you say in your interviews that people get released from Akrestsina detention center without underwear? Why do you dishonor the police?”. They also asked for the name of volunteers who told her about it. Lena refused to tell them anything, and then gave another interview where she said: “We won’t be silent about anyone including those Maksims who phone us”. It seems the person who called her, was offended because more phone calls followed. And this time their tone changed. Yelena’s colleagues noted that this Maksim “sounded like a lover who got their feelings hurt”. Meaning how could she dare mention him? Although, she didn’t mention any last names.
Yelena called me at 7.10 a.m. from the airport and said that she was arrested and being taken to Lenin District Police Department. I immediately asked the policemen not to handle any investigations without me, her lawyer, and asked to inform me about the beginning of the court session in advance. After that I arrived at the Department, and heard the old tale: “We don’t know if she is here or not”. However, eventually they informed me that Lena was at Akrestsina detention center.
I went to the detention center, but wasn’t allowed to see her – due to COVID-19. Although they allow visits at Volodarskogo prison and at KGB detention center. Is COVID-19 active only at Akrestsina?
They said: “These are our rules”. In half an hour at 11.40 a.m. I was called from the court and asked to come and look through the case. Moreover, they asked what time the court session should be scheduled for. It was the first time in my practice when I was asked about it. I asked to schedule the session for 12.30 p.m. in order me to have enough time to study the case. Ten minutes after they called and pinned me down to the fact that the session will begin at 12.00 p.m. I thanked them for informing me in
advance just like I asked in the morning.
I have an assumption why they were in such a hurry. As soon as I got any information I handed it to SOS.by (free alliance of the sportsmen of Belarus – KYKY note). Sportsmen wanted to come and support Yelena wherever she was. However, the judges were afraid of the media frenzy.
In the court I was given only ten minutes to look through the case, and I wasn’t allowed to take photos. I made notes, two administrative cases there were merged into one which took dozens of pages. The time I had was enough for having read the first case, and starting to look into the second one. Then the judge came out and said: “We are commencing the trial. Confirm that you have looked through everything”. I refused to confirm that. She answered: “You may not sign this. We will record that you looked through the case by ourselves anyway. We have to begin the session because of the tight schedule”. Just to be celar: sometimes people at Akrestsina detention center await the court session for 3-5 days. What schedule are you talking about?
Basically the case against Yelena Leuchanka was manufactured on the basis of two screenshots. The first one was taken from the web-site of Pressball newspaper, and the second one – from her Instagram account.
Moreover, the photos on the screenshots were cropped. There was a crowd of people shown on the first one, and Yelena near the buildings on the second. How could this be enough to make a conclusion that she actively participated in the protest against the election results? There were regular people in the photo. It would be the same thing if they had taken the photos of us coming out of the court and said it was a protest against
Americans having landed on the Moon.
Moreover, according to the records, Yelena was arrested at 7.20 a.m., though she called me at 7.10 a.m. – I still have the record of this call in my phone. It means the records were inaccurate. That being said, the regulations of the Code of Execution Procedure of Belarus about providing the legal aid were violated – I wasn’t allowed to visit my client neither at the Police department nor at the detention center. This should have been enough to release Yelena immediately. However, the judge announced the end of the
hearing and left for the deliberations room.
Yelena was given the maximum term – 15 days of arrest as she had also violated driving regulations. It was considered as a proof for her to be dangerous for society. The decision will be appealed.
What a lawyer, working in the conditions of the legal crash, believes in
As of today, leaving your home without the approval of Minsk administration can lead to administrative liability. If you are also civic-minded, you can also face a criminal responsibility. It is how it is at this moment. It’s risky to live in Belarus. And you have to accept this risk. Of course, sometimes I’m scared too – I have two children. But what is
more scary – the idea of living in a concentration camp for the rest of my life. This is what actually scares me – not a few months in prison.
Members of the Coordination Council Maksim Znak and Maria Kalesnikava are kept imprisoned on counts of violation of article 361 of the Criminal Code of Belarus which implies 5 years of imprisonment. Each member of the Coordination Council is at the same risk. However, I’m sure that the power of anarchy will fade away much sooner.
And even if I get “locked” – in a few months we will reverse roles with those who made illegal decisions on our arrests.
Once again we will look at each other through the prison bar. But this time they will be the ones behind them. Even though I could leave the country right now, I won’t do it. Some of my close friends went through hell at Akrestsina detention center on 9-11 August. That’s why I also do my work on personal grounds – for those people who got to try the taste of all the “delights” of our law system.