These days, human rights lawyer Pavel Sapelka has been presented the prestigious Human Rights Award 2012, awarded to him by the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe (CCBE). CCBE unites about 1 million of European lawyers of Bars and Law Societies.
“The Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe (CCBE) granted Sapelko for his courage and perseverance to support the campaign “Human rights activists against death penalty” for the abolition of the death penalty in Belarus. Belarus is Europe’s last dictatorship. Many lawyers cannot practice their professional duties. Sapelko was a member of the Presidency of the Minsk City Bar. He was also involved in defending opposition members and political prisoners who were arrested after the last Belarusian presidential elections in December 2010. Regardless the threats by the state Sapelko continued to carry out his work. However, in March 2011 Sapelko the Ministry of Justice disbarred him. Now Sapelko works as a consultant for the Human Rights Centre “Viasna”,” reads the organization’s press-release.
During his speech at the award ceremony Pavel Sapelka said: “Today is an important day in my life. Day by day, every lawyer takes part in struggle for the interests of those who entrust him with their destiny, their interests and sometimes life. We have chosen this profession, and the profession has given us not only hardships and tribulations, but also the triumph of victory.
I had a similar feeling when, after many years of stagnation, the Minsk City Bar Association for the first time openly and democratically chose their leadership. I was touched that my colleagues entrusted me to head the Presidium of the Bar Association. Those were hard times when we encountered attempts by the Ministry of Justice to interfere with our activities, but our relationship with the executive branch had the nature of the competition, as far as the Ministry did not have the right to cancel the decisions of the Presidium of the Bar by the law, and could not take action directly to individual lawyers.
The events of 19 December 2011 put an end to my hopes that democratic changesare possible within a single institution in a non-democratic state.
A few days after the presidential elections in Belarus most of the presidential candidates, heads of their election headquarters and leaders of opposition parties and movements were arrested.
Hundreds of participants of peaceful assemblies were sentenced to various terms of arrest.
Their defense was conducted by lawyers of the Minsk City Bar Association. The authorities either did not give objective information about the state of the arrested, or spread outright lies. Mass media could receive objective information only from the councels of the arrested. Similarly, those arrested could get some information about the processes occurring only from lawyers.
The State Security Committee (KGB) immediately stopped the access of counsels to those arrested who were kept in the KGB pre-trial prison. Until the end of the investigation, all meetings with detainees took place only in the presence of an investigator who thwart any attempts of communication.
Within the framework of suppression of the activities of the counsels who defended the accused, the Ministry of Justice attacked the lawyers with charges of violating the law. The reason was that the lawyers made public statements about the physical sufferings of the arrested and their deprivation of procedural rights.
In February 2011 the Ministry of Justice annulled the lawyer’s licenses of Aleh and Tatsiana Aheyeus, Uladzimir Toustsik and Tamara Harayeva. Aleh Aheyeu and Tatsiana Aheyeva were members of the Presidium of the Minsk City Bar Association.
Aleh Aheyeu defended the presidential candidate Aliaksei Mikhalevich whomade a shocking statement about the tortures to which he had been subjected there. Uladzimir Toustsik and Tamara Harayeva defended the journalist Iryna Khalip. The lawyer Valiantsina Busko was deprived of her license for participation in a peaceful assembly against the rigged election results. I and the counsels Tamara Sidarenka and Uladzimir Bukshtynau (counsels of the presidential candidate Uladzimir Niakliayeu) lost the right to practice law a bit later.
A year after these events, the new Law on the Bar, which legalized the transformation of an independent institution of the Bar in a fully controlled by the executive authorities, was adopted.
Therefore the award that you handed me, rightfully belongs to all those who struggled beside me, essentially upholding the true understanding of the freedom and independence of the legal profession, staying faithful to their their beliefs and interests of the clients.
Today, almost two years after the CCBE supported us, we see your endless commitment to the idea of corporate solidarity. Facta sunt potentiora verbis – actions are more powerful than words.
I truly believe that the Bar in Belarus is having difficult times, but the time will come when we will take our rightful place in the friendly family of European lawyers, and Belarus – in the family of European nations. “
Bear in mind that the counsel Pavel Sapelka has been defending figurants of politically motivated trials for many years. He was a defender of Mikalai Autukhovich, Tsimafei Dranchuk, represented the interests of Zinaida Hanchar in the case of the disappearance of her hsuband Viktar Hanchar in 1999, was the counsel of a figurant of the “case of fourteen” Aliaksandr Barazenka, defended the editor of the “Navinki” newspaper Pavel Kanavalchyk in the case of insulting the president. After the 2010 election campaign he was the defender of the former presidential candidate Andrei Sannikoau, the BCD leader Pavel Seviarynets and the leader of the “Young Front” Zmitser Dashkevich. His advocacy was the reason why he was deprived of the lawyer’s licence.
Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe (CCBE) is an international non-profit association. It brings together the Bars and the juridical communities of 31 member countries, 11 countries with the status of associated members, and observer countries. CCBE mediates between the EU, the national bar associations and juridical communities of Europe. In addition, the association works closely with legal organizations outside Europe.