Siarhej Zikratski is a prominent Belarusian lawyer, specializing in legal aid to business, media and IT companies. In the aftermath of the 2020 presidential elections, he became involved in numerous politically motivated cases, defending unlawfully detained citizens in court.
SIARHEJ ZIKRATSKI – BELARUS
“There was a chance to achieve change, which I always wanted.”
Before the presidential elections in August 2020, you were already a well-known lawyer with your own business. What was your main activity? I was a lawyer specializing in providing legal assistance to businesses. I was not involved in any human rights activism in the traditional sense. I only had a few individual clients, most were legal entities such as companies looking to start a new business, develop a new idea, draft a contract, get tax advice. I have been in this field for a long time. By early 2020, I had my own office and a good business clientele.
Initially, your work as a lawyer was not related to politics. In 2020, after Viktar Babaryka was nominated for president, you offered him legal assistance. That was prior to the election and the violent crackdown. What made you get involved and to affiliate yourself with a political candidate? In 2020, it was not just me, there was a demand for change among the majority of the Belarusian population. Before the election was announced and the campaign started, we had talked about it with my family. I was talking to my wife and said, “If this or that person was running for president, I would be willing to spend three months working for his or her team for free.” I viewed this support to a prospective presidential candidate as three months volunteering. When Babaryka came along and announced that he is running for president, I thought “This is it, this is my chance to do something good for Belarus. If I can do anything at all, I must do it”. I texted Viktar Babaryka, “Viktar, I can offer you help if you want it.” But he never read that message.
Belarus 2020 by Anna Redko
Why did you personally feel demand for change so strongly in 2020? There were two reasons. One was the candidate [Viktar Babaryka], another was the realization that there was a chance to achieve change, which I always wanted. However, up until 2020 I never saw a figure that I thought had a chance to win. Every political figure was a political figure from my youth. So, when a totally new figure emerges, a businessman, not a politician, you realize that this is someone you are willing to follow. Secondly, I intuitively knew that the public wanted change, they were no longer lethargic. The reason was COVID-19. When the government ignored it, people self-organized and a huge amount of initiatives emerged. I realized that lethargy was no more and that there was a chance to achieve change.
You became actively involved in human rights efforts after the presidential election and the ensuing violence. What did you feel when you saw what was happening? Shock. Unbridled shock because we were not prepared for it at all. We expected arrests and that is why we decided to self-organize. We put together a team of lawyers along with a number of volunteers. We had a plan. We had volunteers who were supposed to be on watch near district police departments and police stations and collect information about the detainees. Others were tasked with keeping watch on courthouses and monitoring hearings. According to our plan, the volunteers were supposed to relay any information from the district police departments to us and family members of the detainees while the lawyers would go places. A splendid plan. None of it worked because the Internet got shut down. For two days, we could not reach anyone anywhere. On the first day, I thought the internet shutdown was the problem, on the second day, I figured that this was not the case. The problem was that thousands of people disappeared and we did not know where they were. Then the first reports of violence emerged. People were calling, they were telling those stories and I could not wrap my head around them. I could not believe that.
What was different about handling politically motivated cases and arrests compared to your prior work? It was a mess. People were grabbed from the streets and taken to random district police departments. We never knew their location. Without this information we were unable to meet the clients and provide legal assistance when the reports were issued. We held marches on Sundays. Monday mornings I sent notices to every district court in Minsk, trying to find out whether my client is in Minsk or not. If the client was detained in Minsk, then I sent notices to every court in Minsk or to every court of the Minsk region. Then I had to wait and see whether I am summoned to court or not. In a situation like that, there was no way I could plan anything.
The cases were brought to court by the bulk. The judges would schedule the hearings at, say, twenty minute intervals. You get a phone call at 10:00 a.m. and they ask you, “Are you so-and-so’s lawyer?” I said, “Yes.” They said, “Come down here, then. Your case will be heard at 12 p.m.” You grab yourself, get in the car, and go to the courthouse. You request access to the case file and that is when you find out specifically what the charges pressed against your client are. It is only then that you find out that the client was arrested at a certain location and is charged with certain actions. You get the case file and you have to review it but are not allowed to photocopy it. There is no way you can build the case. That was the kind of turmoil we were living in. You had to turn down all your business clients, forget about the money, the promises you had given them. I lost several clients during that period.
Were defense lawyers actually able to affect the outcome of such cases? Were there any instances where you managed to get people out of custody? Yes. In the beginning, we did. The repressive apparatus was slow to get started. August was just wonderful. Then in September, the arrests began. We were finding inconsistencies in the case files and when we presented the evidence to the judges, they never had the nerve to dismiss the case. The cases might be sent back to the district police departments for review and the detainees might be released. Then it stopped working like that because there was pressure on the judges. The repressive apparatus was gaining momentum.
The judges were turning a blind eye to our arguments. That’s when the eyewitnesses wearing balaclavas started to appear. They were police officers wearing balaclavas so that only their eyes were seen and they were giving testimony under false identities. We would say, “Folks, this is actually a violation of the law,” but the testimony was admitted regardless. From that point on, there was virtually nothing we could do. Our goal then was to just give our support to the person behind bars. I could see three goals that lawyers were pursuing by taking part in the proceedings. The main goal was to give emotional support to the clients who, while behind bars, had no idea what was happening. I was also giving feedback to the families letting them know that the clients were okay, they were not beaten, and were safe and sound. That was a very important psychological moment. Secondly, I wanted to influence the court. By then, we understood that there were judges who would render unlawful judgments no matter what. My aim was to make the judge uncomfortable in rendering such judgments. My third goal was to document every violation so that when the tide changes, we can overturn those judgments and hold the perpetrators accountable.
When you started getting actively involved, did you expect that such a political pressure would be put on lawyers, which might affect you? I knew there would be pressure and I was mentally prepared for that. I once posted on Facebook that I would be willing to provide advice on election-related issues and only charge one ruble – a token amount because I am not allowed to work for free. Other lawyers started sending me private messages, “Sergey you’re the man. We’ll do it, too. Let us know if you need us.” That was back in June when everything was still quiet and peaceful. I would reply to them “You have no idea what you’re signing up for. This will get you disbarred.” And they would reply, “Yes, we know that.” And I knew that if we do not win the election, everyone involved would be persecuted later. That was clear to me but I had no other choice.
What made you decide to join Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s team? First of all, I was willing to leave the country. There were two reasons why I was willing to leave. One was my family’s emotional well-being. They were very distressed over what I was doing. I kept saying that as long as I had my law license, I was going to defend people even though I knew that I could be put behind bars. When I was with my family, I pretended that this was never going to happen and kept telling everyone that everything I was doing was in compliance with the law. But deep inside I knew that I could end up behind bars. Another thing was that I wanted to continue working for the good of Belarus. I could go back and rebuild my business in Belarus, provide consulting services to businesses again, obtain a legal consultant license instead of a lawyer’s license and work quietly as a consultant. I did in fact obtain that legal consultant license. But I wanted to do good for Belarus. And at that point, my willingness to leave and my desire to do good for Belarus coincided with the offer to join Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s team. With that in mind, I had no other option but to say yes.