A British law firm is to make an unprecedented legal bid to bring a string of private prosecutions against Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko in what they hope could become a template for hounding human rights abusers through multiple courts.
McCue and Partners, a Knightsbridge-based law firm which has previously specialised in suing terrorist groups such as the Real IRA and Hamas, is planning to publish a dossier of evidence against the Belarusian strong man so that lawyers overseas can file their own prosecutions should Lukashenko travel into their jurisdictions.
The initial plan had been to use the UK courts to prosecute Mr Lukashenko under Britain’s fledgling universal jurisdiction laws. Previous attempts have been made to bring cases against foreign human rights abusers – including an Afghan warlord and alleged perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide – but the defendants were all living within British borders at the time.
Mr Lukashenko, who is often described as Europe’s last dictator, is currently subject to a European Union travel ban because of his regime’s deteriorating human rights record. He is therefore unlikely to step foot in a European nation with strong private prosecution laws any time soon.
Instead McCue and Partners are hoping that human rights lawyers within traditional Belarusian allies will apply for access to their 68-page torture dossier and bring their own prosecutions, dramatically reducing where the leader of Belarus can travel to.
“For over a decade, Lukashenko has faced serious allegations against his rule - whether of human rights abuse or electoral fraud,” explained Jason McCue, one of the firm’s senior partners. “Today, the allegations have crystalized within the prosecution kit packs that are being made freely available for would be “prosecutors” around the world so that they can initiate criminal charges against him should he enter their jurisdiction.”
For strategic reasons the firm will not say which countries they have lined up but it is believed Russia, Venezuela, Vietnam and the Central Asian Republics will by high priority jurisdictions because of Mr Lukashenko’s warm relationship with those countries.
Matthew Jury, the partner who has led the investigation into human rights abuses added: "The thing about dictators is that they do not play a fair game. After nearly two decades of an abuse of basic human rights, the victims have decided to make a heroic stand. As a first step, they have had to look for justice outside of Belarus."
In recent months the Belarusian regime has found itself increasingly isolated following a brutal crackdown on pro-democracy campaigners and a rapidly deteriorating economic situation.
Since last December’s disputed presidential elections, hundreds have been arrested with widespread complaints of torture, kidnap and intimidation from the country’s security forces who still go by their Soviet name, the KGB. The crackdown has been accompanied by a sharp decline in living standards as the Belarusian rouble tumbles in a country that now has a worse credit rating than Greece.
The EU and the United States have both increased travel visa bans against more than 200 officials but there has been little attempt to legally pursue the Belarusian regime.
Over the past six months investigators for McCue and Partners have collected harrowing witness statements from some of those who have been arrested, imprisoned and tortured in the crackdown.
The Independent has been given advanced access to the files which reveal how secretive units of masked men routinely beat political prisoners and used a variety of coercive techniques such as sleep deprivation, stress positions and threats to loved ones to force people to incriminate themselves or cooperate.
Three of the witness statements come from former presidential candidates who ran against Mr Lukashenko and have since found themselves charged with plotting mass unrest. They are Vladimir Neklyayev, who was beaten so badly he was hospitalised, Andrei Sannikov, a prominent opposition figure currently serving a four year sentence that has been condemned by international observers and Ales Mikhalevich – who fled Belarus for the Czech Republic earlier this year and was one of the first to blow the lid on torture techniques being employed by the KGB.
Mr Neklyayev’s testimony is particularly harrowing. In a six page witness statement he describes how masked men attacked him and a group of supporters on 19 December as they tried to attend an opposition rally.
“Sound and light grenades started exploding in the middle of our group,” he said. “Special forces arrived and attacked from the back of the group. In the very first moment of the attack I was beaten in the head with a baton”. He was knocked unconscious and eventually woke up in hospital but later abducted by unnamed officials.
“They were dressed all in black,” he said. “They were wearing ski masks. My wife was also in the room. Two of them grabbed her because she immediately started screaming for help. I was put on the floor of a minivan and driven away.”
Mr Neklyayev, who later needed treatment for a herniated disk on his release from KGB custody, was convicted of organising a mass protest and handed down a two-year suspended sentence.
Mr Sannikov, who is widely believed to be Mr Lukashenko’s biggest political threat, is currently five months into a four year prison term. Lawyers have been unable to obtain a witness statement directly from behind bars but a secret recording of a recent closed court hearing was smuggled out the country and reveals how KGB interrogators threatened to harm his family if he refused to co-operate.
“On New Year’s Eve, late in the evening, I had a compulsory conversation with the KGB chairman [Vadim] Zaitsev who threatened the lives and the health of my child and my wife,” Mr Sannikov said, according to a translated transcript of the court hearing. He also claims he was beaten by men in masks.
Mr Mikhalevic, who spent three months in a KGB run prison called Amerikanka before fleeing the country post bail, has also described how his family were threatened. “They would repeatedly tell me that they would harm my family while I was detained in prison,” he said. “I had no idea what had happened to my family as they gad only been allowed to visit me once since I was first detained.”
McCue and Partners has been instructed by Free Belarus Now, a pan European movement made up of Belarusian dissidents who are advocating for regime change in the quasi-Soviet country.
To read the case summary, go to mccue-law.com/belarus
McCue and partners: the legal pioneers
The firm behind the current investigation of Alexander Lukashenko's human rights abuses has pioneered the use of international jurisdictions to pursue individuals and groups who might normally believe they are impervious to such threats.
Based in an office in Knightsbridge, McCue and Partners has previously gone after the Real IRA, Colonel Gaddafi and the armed wing of Hamas over financial transactions paid to families of suicide bombers.
Many within the legal community were initially sceptical of their activities, but in June 2009 that changed when a court in Belfast awarded the victims of the Omagh bombing £1.6m in compensation. Led by Jason McCue, the firm went after the financial assets of four Real IRA members. The case is currently winding its way through the appeal courts, but illustrated how a novel interpretation of the law could yield results.After years of chasing Gaddafi on behalf of IRA victims who were killed by Libyan Semtex, the firm is in negotiations with the new regime in Tripoli.