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A "Politically Motivated Case" – Belarusian Illia Salei Talks About National Security Charges Brought Against Him

A "Politically Motivated Case" – Belarusian Illia Salei Talks About National Security Charges Brought Against Him

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Last week, Illia Salei of Borovtsov & Salei announced that he "was forced to leave Belarus where [he stands] to be prosecuted under Article 361 of Belarusian Criminal Code for the alleged appeals to actions aimed at harming the national security." He added: "I consider the case to be politically motivated." CEE Legal Matters spoke to Salei to learn more about the matter.

CEELM: To give our readers a bit of background, can you tell us what Article 361 is and what the specific charges against you are?

Salei: Article 361 of the Belarusian Criminal Code provides for criminal liability for making public calls for actions aimed at harming the national security of Belarus. In violation of Belarusian law, the charges put forward against me neither specifically describe what public calls I made, nor specify the place, time, or other details of the alleged crime. Instead, the charges contain only very vague wording and simply repeat the content of Article 361 of the Criminal Code. I have officially denied all the charges, including at the time of official interrogations, and find the case to be politically motivated for my professional activity as a lawyer.

CEELM: You argue this is a "politically motivated" case. Why do you believe that to be true?

Salei: Between May and September 2020, together with my colleague Maksim Znak, I represented democratic opposition presidential candidates Viktar Babaryka and Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya during the 2020 presidential election in Belarus, including by appealing the official results to the Central Electoral Commission and the Supreme Court of Belarus. I also advised and represented one of the opposition leaders, Maria Kalesnikava. In this regard, I consider the arrest to be connected exclusively with our professional activity – specifically, advising opposition leaders – and aimed at depriving them of their constitutional right to legal protection.

After the arrest, Maksim Znak and I were recognized as political prisoners by a coalition of Belarusian human rights organizations, as well as by most Western states. Amnesty International deemed us as political prisoners. The Law Society of England and Wales and the American Bar Association, among others, sent official letters to Belarusian authorities demanding our immediate release. We highly appreciate the support of the international legal community.

CEELM: As you mentioned, following your arrest, Amnesty International deemed you a "prisoner of conscience." What does that mean and what was the rationale behind this classification?

Salei: Generally, prisoners of conscience are persons imprisoned for the peaceful expression of their political, religious, or other conscientiously held beliefs, or for their identity, even though they have neither used nor advocated violence. In our case, this means that the arrest is connected exclusively with the legal representation of opposition leaders who were publicly expressing their political beliefs.

CEELM: You mentioned you are not the only lawyer in this position?

Salei: As mentioned, the politically motivated charges for making public calls for actions aimed at harming the national security of Belarus were put forward against Maksim Znak and me.

Today, Maksim faces trial. Despite the general rule of Belarusian law and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the hearings are taking place behind closed doors. Maksim’s lawyers are not allowed to disclose any details of the hearing, under the risk of disbarment. Belarusian authorities justify the closed hearing on the grounds of national security.

Repressions against lawyers in Belarus generally continue. Most of the lawyers who were involved in defending and representing opposition leaders were disbarred. Some of them were also forced to leave the country.

CEELM: When we last checked in, you were in Poland. What are the next steps for you?

Salei: Today I indeed find myself in Warsaw, Poland. As my practice in Belarus does not seem likely to resume in the nearest future, I am looking and am open to new opportunities and challenges to continue both my personal and professional growth. I would be interested in both the private and public sectors.

CEELM: If you could convey any message to the legal community across the region, what would it be and why do you find that to be particularly important?

Salei: I would call on the international legal community to send a strong message to Belarusian authorities demanding the cessation of politically motivated pressure and repressions against lawyers and that basic civil and political rights, in general, be respected in Belarus.

I would also kindly ask national bar associations in the region to consider the option of a simplified procedure for admission of Belarusian lawyers deprived of their licenses for political reasons.

I would separately call on the community to demand a fair and public trial for Maksim Znak, who denies all the charges and is actively defending himself.

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