Lawyers who have dared to defend imprisoned pro-democracy activists in Belarus have been disbarred, in what human rights campaigners say is a deliberate move by the government to hamper fair trials.
At least five lawyers who have stepped up to represent jailed opposition leaders have been struck off by Belarus's Ministry of Justice, which controls who can enter the legal profession through a strict licensing system.
The five lawyers have been struck off on various technicalities but human rights activists say they are being deliberately disbarred because of their work with jailed democracy activists.
Pavel Sapelka, who represented three candidates who ran against Alexander Lukashenko in last December's elections, is the latest to be disbarred. The decision was passed by Minsk City Bar Association last Thursday at the request of the Ministry of Justice. Vadzimer Toustsik, Tamara Harayeva, Tatsyana Aheyeva and her son Aleh Aheyev have also had their licences revoked. They all either represented jailed members of the pro-democracy movement or were closely associated with them.
Mr Sapelka, who defended the presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov, had his licence revoked after he visited his client in the KGB detention centre and publicly stated that he looked "dramatically beaten" and could "hardly move". He also called all suspicions against his client "absolutely groundless", adding that he was "entirely innocent".
While the justice ministry insisted he was disbarred for "inappropriate statements", Irina Bogdanova, the British-based 54-year-old sister of Mr Sannikov, believes it was part of a larger political strategy to intimidate pro-democracy lawyers. "It is a very political move to disbar these people and it sends a message out to other lawyers," she said. "We have not been able to find anyone else to defend Sannikov – they are just too scared."
Valetin Stefanovich, legal adviser to the Viasna human rights group, said: "Since 19 December the pressure has really increased. All elements of society are now feeling it. It's really bad."
Mrs Bogdanova, who marked her brother's 57th birthday yesterday, said that losing Mr Sapelka's representation meant the loss of her one connection with Mr Sannikov. "My 78-year-old mum packed a parcel to take to him in prison, to make his birthday a bit more bearable, but the guards refused to take it. We know there is something wrong with his health and he can't eat, but we don't know any more. There is no lawyer to fight his corner and we now have nowhere to turn. We are in agony."