Chronicle of events: Criminal prosecution and detention of lawyer, Maxim Znak
Updated on September 6, 2021
Maxim Znak was a lawyer for presidential candidate Viktor Babariko, and was one of the lawyers prosecuted for political reasons in 2020. On 9 September 2020, he was taken into custody. Human rights activists recognised Znak as a political prisoner, and Amnesty International proclaimed him a prisoner of conscience. International organisations have repeatedly sent appeals in support of Znak.

Here we present information on the events associated with the prosecution of Maxim Znak, in chronological order.

On May 8, 2020, the House of Representatives of the National Assembly of the Republic of Belarus set the date for Belarus’s presidential elections for 9 August 2020.

On May 12, 2020 Viktor Babariko, an ex-chairman of the board of Belgazprombank, announced that he was going to participate in the elections as a presidential candidate.

On May 20, 2020, the Central Commission on Elections and Republican Referenda (CER) registered Babariko’s presidential candidacy campaign group.

On May 28, 2020, Znak, having signed an agreement between his law office and Babariko, joined Babariko’s team to provide legal assistance on electoral law issues, after which Babariko issued power of attorney to Maxim Znak as representative of Babariko’s interests in all courts and state authorities on any legal issues related to participation in the election campaign. Znak’s decision to join the campaign was made based on his position on civil rights: he is for fair elections and for the participation of alternative candidates. He also recognised that Babariko needed professional legal assistance to protect his rights as a candidate, since participation in Belarus’s presidential elections as an alternative candidate to the incumbent raises the risk of obstacles to exercise this right as well as personal risks. In previous elections, a number of candidates have been prosecuted and convicted.

On June 12, 2020, after Alexander Lukashenko’s public statements that one of his competitors (i.e., Viktor Babariko) “made his money fraudulently”, the State Control Committee of the Republic of Belarus (KGB) initiated a particularly wide-ranging criminal case on tax evasion (Part 2 of Art. 243 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus) and legalisation of unlawful income (Part 2 of Article 235 of the Criminal Code). After the case was initiated, more than 15 Belgazprombank employees were detained.

On June 18, 2020, Babariko was detained due to the criminal case as the former head of Belgazprombank, and on 20 June 2020, he was charged and taken into custody. To date, he remains in the KGB’s pre-trial detention center.

On June 20, 2020, Znak, on behalf of Babariko, submitted an application for registration of Babariko as a presidential candidate of the Republic of Belarus to the CER.

On July 14, 2020, Znak represented Babariko at a meeting of the CER, where the issue of registering the latter as a presidential candidate was considered. The CER refused to register Babariko on the basis of a letter from the Committee on Financial Control, containing allegations of alleged crimes committed by Babariko. This occurred in the absence of evidence and a court verdict. On 15 July 2020, Znak filed a complaint on behalf of Babariko to the Supreme Court of the Republic of Belarus on the CER’s decision. On 16 July 2020, the Supreme Court overruled the complaint.

On July 14, 2020, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya was registered by the CER as a presidential candidate. On 16 July 2020, Tikhanovskaya, Maria Kolesnikova (a representative of Babariko’s headquarters), and Veronika Tsepkalo (representative of the headquarters of another unregistered candidate, Valery Tsepkalo) announced the unification of their headquarters. Znak continued to work on the election campaign as a lawyer on the basis of his agreement with Babariko and the power of attorney dated 12 June 2020, and also on the basis of another agreement on legal assistance with Tikhanovskaya dated 6 August 2020. Legal assistance consisted, as before, in the preparation of legal documents, consulting and maintaining publicity of the work, and other activities such as legislation clarification.

On August 9, 2020, presidential elections were held in Belarus. According to official results, the incumbent, President Alexander Lukashenko won by 80.1 per cent, against Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s 10.1 per cent of the vote. However, the elections were held in an atmosphere where electoral procedures were not transparent and independent election observers of the election commissions’ work experienced oppression. Numerous violations of electoral legislation were recorded. Therefore, the election results caused unrest among the joint headquarters and many citizens, leading to large-scale protests throughout Belarus, with initiatives organising to expose the falsification of the election results and advocating a vote recount.

On August 10, 2020, Tikhanovskaya, together with Znak, filed a complaint on the election results to the CER at their building, where law enforcement officers spoke with her. After this she left the CER building, without a lawyer, and her whereabouts were unknown until the next day. On the morning of 11 August, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius announced that Tihanovskaya was in Lithuania. This was followed by statements by Tikhanovskaya and the joint headquarters that she was forced to leave Belarus and go to Lithuania, as she was under unprecedented pressure.

On August 14, 2020, there were the first mass protests against the election results, which led to strong reactions from the authorities in the form of violence against the protesters. Police and security forces used special equipment (police batons, stungrenades, firearms with rubber bullets, tear gas) and tortured detainees in isolation wards. Tikhanovskaya announced that she and her headquarters were ready for dialogue with the authorities and that she would be initiating the creation of a Coordination Council, consisting of representatives of civil society. Tikhanovskaya instructed her confidant Olga Kovalkova and Znak (power of attorney issued on 20 August 2020) to accept applications for the nomination of council members from organisations and associations of citizens.

On August 18 2020, the Coordination Council began its work. The Resolution, approved at the meeting of the Council on 19 August, states that the Council “aims to find ways to overcome the political crisis in the Republic of Belarus and ensure harmony in society on the basis of the Constitution. The Coordination Council does not aim to change the constitutional order and foreign policy”. The initial number of Council members included 4,691 citizens. Znak was elected to be one of the members of the Presidium of the Coordination Council.

On August 18, 2020, the activities of the Council as an association of citizens met with opposition from the state. Lukashenko called the creation of the Coordination Council an attempt to seize power at a meeting with Security Council members.

On August 19, 2020, the Prosecutor General of Belarus, Alexander Konyuk, initiated a criminal case concerning the creation of the Coordination Council and qualifying their actions to be a crime under Part 3 of Art. 361 of the Criminal Code. On 21 August 2020, Znak was summoned to the Investigative Committee for questioning as a witness in the case initiated on 19 August 2020.

On August 21, 2020, Znak, on behalf of Tikhanovskaya, filed a complaint to the Supreme Court to declare the elections invalid. The complaint was accompanied by 25 large files of documents proving the grounds for the complaint. The Supreme Court rejected the appeal.

On September 7, 2020, Znak hosted a video livestream where he voiced his professional opinion about the abduction of Kolesnikova, about the abuse of power by law enforcement officers during the dispersal of peaceful assemblies, and spoke about the legal possibilities for emerging civil initiatives (for example, holding local assemblies).

On the morning of September 9, 2020, searches were carried out in the office of the joint headquarters and in Znak's apartment. He was taken to the Investigative Committee for interrogation as a suspect in a criminal case initiated under Part 3 of Art. 361 of the Criminal Code, after which he was taken into custody on the decision of the investigator and with the approval of the Deputy Prosecutor General of the Republic of Belarus. He is currently in remand prison No. 1 in Minsk.

On September 9, Belarusian lawyers made an open statement regarding the detention of their colleagues.

On September 9, the Belarusian Helsinki Committee appealed to the UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers with a report on the situation of lawyers Znak and Ilya Salei. They called for urgent action to be taken regarding the detention of lawyers and to send an urgent message to the government of Belarus on the need to comply with basic principles regarding the role of lawyers.

On September 10, 2020, Belarusian human rights organisations recognised Znak as a political prisoner. An appeal was sent to the Belarusian government from 77 human rights organisations and associations of lawyers in defence of Znak and Salei.

On September 11, Amnesty International recognised all the detained members of the Coordination Council, including Znak and their associates, as prisoners of conscience, and demanded that the Belarusian authorities immediately and unconditionally release them.

On September 15, the Belarusian Helsinki Committee called on the UN Human Rights Committee to take urgent action concerning the detention of lawyers and send an urgent message to the government of Belarus on the need to comply with the basic principles regarding the role of lawyers.

On September 18, the Court of Partizansky District in Minsk refused to accept the defence's complaint about the arbitrary detention of Znak. Znak was charged with committing a crime under Part 3 of Art. 361 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus. In response to the unlawfulness of the criminal prosecution and the arbitrariness of the detention, Znak officially went on hunger strike.

On September 24, and November, 25, letters and an appeal from the President of the Council of Bar and Bar Associations of Europe were sent to the President of the Republic of Belarus in support of Znak and on the inadmissibility of prosecuting lawyers for political reasons.

On October 22, 2020, an appeal was sent to the Belarusian authorities from the American Bar Association in support of Znak.

November 9, 2020 was the last day of Znak's two-month detention period. The Investigative Committee and the Prosecutor General's Office decided to extend the term of Znak's detention for another two months, until 9 January 2021.

On November 16, 2020, the Partizansky district court of Minsk leaves Znak in a pre-trial detention center. The defence complaints were not accepted. The lawyers announced that they would appeal the decision to the Minsk City Court. On that day, the Belarusian lawyers' appeal regarding Znak's release from custody and the termination of criminal prosecution against him is posted on the Internet.

On December 22, 2020, the Prosecutor General's Office initiated a new criminal case against the Coordination Council. The defendants are Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Maria Kolesnikova, Maxim Znak, Pavel Latushko, Olga Kovalkova, Sergei Dylevsky, and others. The case was initiated under Part 1 of Art. 357 of the Criminal Code: an attempt to seize state power by unconstitutional means, “the creation of an extremist formation and its leadership, i.e. committing a crime under Part 1 of Article 361-1 of the Criminal Code".

January 9, 2021, Znak remains in custody for another two months, until 9 March 2021.

January 19, 2021. In the pre-trial detention center on Volodarskogo there are two rooms, No. 24 and No. 29, for especially dangerous criminals who are sentenced to life imprisonment or the death penalty. This is where Znak and Kolesnikova meet with their lawyers. 'Especially dangerous' Kolesnikova and Znak are separated from the lawyers by a door, a small window, and a grid. Lyudmila Kazak (lawyer) was waiting for Kolesnikova, but instead of her client, they brought Znak into the office. Znak smiled and sent greetings to the public. It is believed that such an incident is an attempt to exert psychological pressure on both the lawyer and those in custody.

January 25, 2021. As Znak's detention was extended to 9 March 2021, his lawyers filed a complaint on the extension to the Partizansky District Court of Minsk. The complaint was represented in court by lawyer Dmitry Laevsky. The court session was held behind closed doors. Many colleagues and citizens came to support Znak. The ambassadors of Austria and Romania also came to support the political prisoner. The complaint was considered by Judge T.V. Oleynikova, who rejected it.

On February 10, 2021, lawyer Maxim Znak was charged with conspiracy to seize state power unconstitutionally (Part 1 of Art. 357 of the Criminal Code), and with the creation of an extremist group and leading it (Part 1 of Art. 361-1 of the Criminal Code). Those charges were brought against him in addition to the charges that has been in place since September: public appeals to actions aimed at harming national security (Part 3 of Art. 361 of the Criminal Code).

On February 18, 2021, Maxim Znak became one of the leaders in the Chambers Global 2020 ranking of Belarus in the categories "Dispute Resolution" and "Corporate / Commercial Practice".

On March 16, 2021, M. Znak's lawyers appealed his arrest to the Prosecutor General's Office.

On April 30, 2021, Minsk City Court refused to cancel the detention of Maxim Znak.

On May 5, 2021, final charges against Maxim Znak were brought. He was accused of conspiracy to seize state power unconstitutionally (Part 1 of Art. 357 of the Criminal Code), creating an extremist group and leading it (Part 1 of Art. 361-1 of the Criminal Code), public appeals to actions aimed at harming national security (Part 3 of Art. 361 of the Criminal Code).

On May 7, 2021, lawyers of Znak announced the end of the preliminary investigation of his case, meaning that investigative body considered all investigative actions completed, and intended to direct the case to the prosecutor for its further redirection to court.

On May 18, 2021, Maxim Znak's defence appealed another extension of the lawyer's detention to the court.

On June 7, 2021, M. Znak's lawyers announced that the term of reviewing the files of Maxim Znak and Maria Kolesnikova's criminal case had expired.

On June 25, 2021 the Prosecutor General's Office directed the criminal case against lawyer Maxim Znak and Maria Kolesnikova to the Supreme Court to determine jurisdiction.

On July 5, 2021 - a criminal case against lawyer Maxim Znak and Maria Kolesnikova, accused of Part 1 of Art. 357, Part 3 of Art. 361, Part 1 of Art. 361-1 of the Criminal Code was submitted for consideration to the Minsk Regional Court.

On August 4, 2021, the trial against lawyer Maxim Znak and Maria Kolesnikova began. The trial was held behind lockeb. The relatives of Kolesnikova and Znak were not allowed to enter the court.

On September 6, 2021, the court sentenced Maria Kolesnikova to 11 years in prison, and Maxim Znak to 10 years in a maximum security colony. The verdict has not yet entered into legal force and can be appealed. On the morning of September 6 queues of people wishing to get to the announcement of the verdict lined up at the court, but not everyone was able to get into the hall, and foreign diplomats were not allowed on the order of the Belarusian Foreign Ministry.

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