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Lawyering Under Dictatorship: An Interview with Yauheni Pylchanka and Vladislava Chalei
Interview by Ariella Katz (JD ’23)
In August 2020, thousands of people in Belarus took to the streets in what is believed to be the biggest protest movement in the country’s history. The protests were sparked by the falsification of the presidential election results, which purported to give Alexander Lukashenko – president of Belarus since 1994 – victory with over 80 percent of the vote. The United States, European Union, and others denounced the election results as fraudulent and refused to recognize Lukashenko as the legitimate leader of Belarus. Protesters rallied around Sviatlana Tikhanovskaya, former English teacher and wife of jailed opposition blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, as the true winner of the election.
The protests were met with a brutal crackdown that led to the detention of over 25,000 people by November 2020. Human Rights Watch reported that protesters endured severe beatings and electric shocks, and were detained in overcrowded and unhygienic conditions often without food and water. In an effort to further silence dissent, the Lukashenko regime liquidated the remaining human rights organizations and shut down the largest independent news portal. Lawyers were at the forefront of defending those who were punished for democracy advocacy and soon they became targets too. This is the story of a lawyer who sacrificed his professional career to represent one of Lukashenko’s most prominent opponents.
On November 5, 2021 Ariella Katz (HLS JD’23) spoke with Yauheni (Yevgeni) Pylchanka, a Belorusian lawyer, who was disbarred after representing imprisoned presidential candidate Viktar Babaryka, and Vladislava Chalei, a Belarusian-American activist based in Boston.
Q: Thank you so much to both of you for speaking with me. I am deeply inspired by all that you do as human rights defenders. To start off, could you give our readers some context about what is happening in Belarus?
Yauheni: There were always problems in Belarus but they particularly intensified after the presidential elections which happen once every five years. In 2006, one presidential candidate was jailed. In 2010, six candidates were jailed. In 2015, the elections passed invisibly. But after all of these, the activists helping the candidates would be sent to jail.
In May 2020, new presidential elections were announced for August. And this time the situation was different because they were not just imprisoning candidates, but even people who wanted to become candidates before the elections even started. At the beginning of May, Sergei Tikhanovsky was arrested. He was a blogger who announced his intention to participate in the elections. But because he was arrested, he couldn’t even submit his documents to register as a candidate. His wife Sviatlana submitted the documents instead. And that is how Sviatlana Tikhanovskaya appeared on the international stage as the chosen leader of the Belarusian people. Tikhanovsky was jailed for fifteen days and then released. Then, he took part in his wife’s campaign but at the end of May he was arrested again.
My story is more connected to Viktar Babaryka. Babaryka was the chairman of one of Belarus’ largest banks for twenty years. After the elections were announced in May, he left the bank and announced his candidacy. He enjoyed a lot of support because he was known as a philanthropist and businessman. He got half a million signatures even though 100,000 was enough. Then, the government started spreading false information that he was backed by Russia. On June 11, fifteen people were arrested including employees of the bank where he worked and several of his family friends.
A week later, he and his son were arrested and placed in pre-trial detention. By that time, he already knew that he would be criminally prosecuted. His lawyers were Dmitry Laevski, the managing partner of the law firm where I worked, Aleksandr Pylchanka, my father, and Natalia Matskevich, a human rights and international litigation expert. My father was at one point the head of the Minsk Bar and one of the most famous lawyers in Belarus.
First, I didn’t take part in this case. After Babaryka was arrested, there were mass protests. People went out into the streets and stood on the sidewalks. There weren’t a lot of arrests then. In mid-July, when it was time for candidates to register, Babaryka was refused. This is when a lot of people went out to protest, and the police responded with violence. Sviatlana Tikhanovskaya was the only independent candidate left. All the other opposition campaigns rallied around her. It was a huge thing because we had never seen such activism in Belarus.
On the day of the elections, they shut off all the internet. No one knew what was happening. Some people waited for the results at the polls and other people gathered downtown. The police attacked people with rubber bullets and flash grenades even though the demonstrators were peaceful. People would go outside, and the police would shoot them. I didn’t understand the scale of it. I had been standing by my polling station waiting for the results, so I didn’t know what was happening. Three days later, seven thousand people were arrested for peaceful demonstrations. They were held in jails throughout the country including in the Okrestina detention center, where people were tortured. Sixty people, for example, were put in cells built for twenty. No one was fed. They would deprive people of sleep by forcing them to lie face down on the ground outside. They forced people to stand for hours facing a wall, spreading their legs and arms wide. They would force people to walk through lines of police who would beat them with batons.
The next day, the women came out to protest. On that day, no one was arrested. And a few days later, half a million people went out into the streets. It felt like everyone was there. Each Sunday there were huge protests. On the second week, they began arresting people again and, by December, the protests waned because people were seized and put into jails where the conditions were torturous. They weren’t given mattresses and they slept straight on the metal beds. There was no protection from COVID.
At the same time, they started to prosecute people for going to unsanctioned protests. And since the government doesn’t sanction anything, all the protests are forbidden. Now you can even be arrested for wearing the wrong clothes. Words on a t-shirt are considered a picket. For a television box that is red and white, the color of the national flag used by the opposition, you can be charged with a picket. For that you can get fifteen days of jail.
“The next day, the women came out to protest. On that day, no one was arrested. And a few days later, half a million people went out into the streets. It felt like everyone was there….”
Vladislava: One of the labor lawyers who is now imprisoned was initially jailed for fifteen days for making a protest video with his co-workers. The conditions were inhuman. And now he is imprisoned by the KGB.
Yauheni: Publishing something on the internet is also considered a picket. And you can be criminally prosecuted based on a video of you at a protest. If you are photographed standing in the street, you can be imprisoned for two years for blocking traffic. Of course, during the protests the whole street was filled with people. There were no cars at all.
Image from Defenders.By
Q: How did you get involved in activist politics as a lawyer?
Q: It looks like the best lawyers and most active lawyers have been prevented from practicing. How do you see your work in the future? What are you doing now?
Yauheni: Now, I’m getting my stuff in order. By inertia I’m continuing to work but I need to find someone to whom I can pass on my cases. I am finishing some appeals. But of course, I can’t take new cases. I can only give advice, but I can’t get fees for it of course. Now, I can’t practice as a lawyer. Because I was a criminal litigator, I can’t work in my specialty again. Laevski, who was disbarred four months ago, initially helped me write briefs. But now I’m disbarred too, and I don’t have anyone to work with. And now all the cases are sealed. I don’t even have mediated access to criminal cases. What I will do I don’t know because I wasn’t planning on getting expelled. Lawyers can either leave and become lawyers in a different country or change their profession. Before, people would become human rights defenders but six months ago, half of the human rights defenders were imprisoned and all the human rights organizations were liquidated. Even ones more indirectly related to human rights, like organizations for writers. All organizations of civil society who can be seen as critical of the government have been liquidated.
“…when the repression started, the lawyers defending the people who were detained, they were taking a moral stand. You had to take a side. You couldn’t just ignore what was happening.”
Q: Can you do human rights advocacy outside an official organization?
Yauheni: Well, you can but you can go to prison for that. As a lawyer, what I was doing was legal. That was the only profession where you could speak out and it was OK. Now they need to remove all the people who speak, and it will be beautiful.
Q: You said that you didn’t plan to be disbarred but your colleagues probably knew about the risk of defending a presidential candidate and other activists. How did you make the decision to take on this risk?
Yaeheni: I didn’t plan to be disbarred in the sense that I didn’t know the date but, of course, I knew that sooner or later we would be disbarred. I thought it would be in the Spring when I had to take my re-qualification exam, but the process went faster. I knew the risks but when these cases began, I thought that we wouldn’t be living in a totalitarian state but in a free one. There were these hopes. I didn’t think about not taking the case because probably to be part of such a case is the goal of any criminal lawyer – I am being asked to defend the main political prisoner in Belarus. And before he was a prisoner, he was the main opposition leader even though he was not yet a politician. It was the kind of case you wanted to strive for. I could be punished for it, yes, but the case was worth it. I felt like we were doing something important and not just making money.
And when the repression started, the lawyers defending the people who were detained, they were taking a moral stand. You had to take a side. You couldn’t just ignore what was happening. Everyone understood the risks but after the elections they didn’t care. What we saw, it didn’t give us any opportunity to co-exist with this system. How can you go to court knowing that the judge has convicted the third beaten-up person that day and you go to her to talk about someone accused of theft and pretend that this isn’t happening? A lot of people couldn’t accept this system.
Yauheni Pylachanka is a Belarusian lawyer. He graduated from Belarusian State University in 2011 and joined the Minsk Bar in 2012. Yauheni specialized in criminal defense with a focus on official misconduct and economic crimes. In 2020-2021, he defended the political prisoners Viktar Babaryka, Sviatlana Kupreyeva, and the lawyer Maksim Znak. On November 2, 2021, he was expelled from the Minsk Bar.
Vladislava Chalei is VP, Head of Corporate development at MyOme, a clinical genomics company. Prior to that, she worked at the Boston Consulting Group, focusing on healthcare. She was awarded a DPhil in Functional genomics by the University of Oxford in 2014, and held a postdoctoral fellowship from Harvard university Medical school / Mass General hospital. She obtained her BSc Honors degree in Molecular biology from Edinburg university in 2011.
Ariella Katz is a 2L at Harvard Law School and the incoming Co-President of Harvard Advocates for Human Rights. She graduated from the University of Chicago in 2018. Afterwards, she was a Fulbright scholar in Russia where she started a creative writing and theater program for people transitioning to life after prison. She spent her 1L summer at the European Court of Human Rights. At HLS, she is also an editor of the Harvard Law Review.