"She was not only an attorney, but also a psychologist and just a person who was willing to go out of her way to help." Publishing letters of gratitude #saythankstotheattorney
Published May 21, 2024
May 21 has been declared the Day of Solidarity with Political Prisoners in Belarus. Currently there are almost one and a half thousand political prisoners in Belarus. And in most cases, only an attorney is a reminder of "normal" life for a political prisoner, proof that the world has not completely gone crazy. And it is very difficult for us to imagine to what extent the situation with political prisoners has worsened after all the actions to intimidate and pacify attorneys were taken when an honest and devoted attorney who defends their client themselves became a target for persecution.

This year, our project launched the #saythankstotheattorney campaign, within which they sent us many warm stories about the courage, honesty and humanity of attorneys. We are publishing the thank you letters received, extracting certain parts for security reasons. Also, we cannot publish some letters now due to the deeply personal nature of the information presented and the potential risk of inadvertently causing harm. Something must still remain behind the scenes, as is well shown in the film "The Lives of Others". Someday later, all the archives will definitely be opened and the "thank you"s that have been sent to us by mail as part of the campaign will reach all recipients.

In conditions when the institution of the legal profession is being destroyed by the state in tandem with the leadership of the legal profession, and some holders of an attorney's license appear on television in propaganda programs, conduct "lessons" with schoolchildren and threaten them with criminal liability for "extremism", and at meetings with labor collectives they legitimize illegitimate and illegal elections, it may seem that the role of the defender has been reduced to just this - to be "statesmen". However, real attorneys are told "thank you" not for "clarifications" of the extremist law, but for their deeds and humanity, even when the whole world turns its back on a particular person.

The legal profession is a very important part of the justice system, and the individual attorney who honestly and selflessly helps people deserves to not be identified with what the legal profession has become now. Such an attorney is fully worthy of words of gratitude.

We thank the non-governmental sector organizations that supported our action, including special thanks to the projects Palitvyazynka, Politzek.me, CyberBeaver, One Window Service, Belarusian Association of Human Rights Lawyers, Human Rights Center Viasna, Human Constanta.
In 2023, we, the "Right to Defence" project and the Belarusian Association of Human Rights Lawyers, prepared a mini-album "34 years per four: Belarusian attorneys in prison (and in life)" for the Day of Solidarity with Political Prisoners, and as part of the #writetotheattorney (#напішыадвакату) campaign, many Belarusians expressed their solidarity with the imprisoned defenders and wrote letters to them. These kind words are important both to the politically imprisoned attorneys themselves and to their families in the context of the complete injustice and wrongness of what is happening.
"I am absolutely amazed that such people are still in the system"
I saw my attorney, let's call her MV, at the first meeting with the investigator. After 5 days in detention center on Akrestin Street, I didn't look good, to put it mildly. But she immediately noted that I was very beautiful and that my eyes were shining. I had a not too aggressive investigator, on the contrary - he tried to do everything quickly, carefully and, as much as possible, according to the law. But MV still would cut him off and ask him to be attentive to me. It was only at the end of our first meeting that I found out that she was assigned to me (state attorney). The one hired by my friends did not have time to contact the investigator. But I kept MV.

At all our meetings, the a attorney mphasized how beautiful and strong I was, in some fine details - eyes, hair, skin. Coming from a woman with washed hair and red lipstick on her lips, this was very inspiring. After closing the case, I walked for two more days with warmth in my heart from her words. I remembered that I was beautiful))).

At the trial, she directly spoke about my suffering and humiliation in captivity. As far as i remember, her speech was the only time I cried because at least someone was able to openly admit it.

She and I were in touch even after my release, when I had a long struggle with work, fines, back pay and property restitution. I am absolutely amazed that such people are still in the system. I still don't know how much money she asked for, but my friend who communicated with her described it as absolutely ridiculous money (she asked for very little).
"She became my friend and cried at the verdict"
An attorney is a must-have. She became my friend and cried at the verdict. Her visits were an opportunity to both find out what was happening outside and simply talk with someone, share what was happening, even some small everyday situations. Plus, of course, this is an almost direct guaranteed connection with reality, which was a huge help when letters weren't going well.
"This is validation that you are not a criminal"
Firstly, it is a connection with the world, and secondly, it is validation that you are not a criminal and everyone understands everything perfectly, sympathising from the outside. Thirdly, this is REAL help with how not to talk yourself into another 10 years behind bars out of simplicity of heart. Attorneys are very needed.
"She was the first normal person I talked to after 24 hours"
I want to say "thank you" to attorney Inessa Olenskaya.

I ended up in Akrestsin detention center in 202_... when mass repressions in Belarus had been going on for several years already. Despite all the risks, she responded to the request of my loved ones to defend me in "court" - if you can call the trial via Skype "court". She was the first normal person I talked to after 24 hours from my arrest. She was in touch with my friends, risking her own freedom, she was next to my friend, who came to meet me.

In Belarus, Inessa helped those who needed help until the very end. And in the end she herself was persecuted - she was detained, deprived of her job, and she had to leave. Like many Belarusians, she lost her homeland because she could not watch from the outside the horror that was happening. Many thanks to Inessa Olenskaya for everything she has done for me and many other people.
"I can't imagine what would have happened to me if I hadn't met her"
This year my life changed dramatically. I was detained, became a suspect under a very unpleasant criminal article, and found myself in a situation where I felt lost and defenseless. At that moment, in a moment of complete uncertainty, an attorney IT. came to me, an attorney who became for me not just a defender, but also a true friend, support, and guide in a difficult and unpredictable situation.

A random meeting with a pro bono attorney grew into a strong relationship based on trust, professionalism and mutual understanding. IT. is an attorney with a huge heart; she not only protects rights, but also deeply understands a person, fears and anxieties. She was there for me when I needed support, gave valuable advice, helped me understand complex legal issues and find solutions that seemed unrealistic.

I remember how... I was detained for picketing (although there was no picket there, they didn't even consider the evidence). 15 days in detention for expressing your opinion - an experience that will not be forgotten. But in those difficult days, IT. did not leave me alone. She supported me morally and helped me write a complaint about the conditions of detention in the detention center.

And then there was a big criminal case. I would meet with IT. almost every month. She was not only an attorney, but also a psychologist, and just a person who was ready to do her best to help. I can't imagine what would have happened to me if I hadn't met her.

I met my attorney - a true professional, ready to defend justice and help those who need it. Her humanity, kindness and responsiveness make her not just a good attorney but also a true friend. And I will always be grateful to her for that.
"You gave me so much hope and faith in what we were fighting for"
My attorney is AS.. Thank you for everything! You appeared in my life suddenly and unexpectedly. This year was full of events of various kinds: happy, sad and even terrible. And it was during such terrible times that I got to know you, being in ... Detention center. You came there as my attorney, which gave me so much hope and faith that everything would be fine, that we were together, that we, those behind bars, were remembered and were fought for. You defended me with all your courage and professional tenacity during several trials. Although, of course, it is difficult to call what happens in Belarusian courts "trials". But you fought like a real warrior, you stood firm on the positions of law and justice.

Your dedication to your work knows no bounds, so even in ordinary life you are an excellent adviser, friend and family.

And in 2024, despite all the horror that is happening in the legal system of Belarus, there are still attorneys who are ready to risk their freedom. After all, the defense of those involved in political cases is a risk for the defenders themselves. Therefore, my big thanks to all steadfast human rights defenders, Professionals with a capital letter!
(literal translation from Belarusian to English)

Life is not only moving forward, there are turns to the left and to the right, sometimes it passes along a white lane, and sometimes along a black one.

When everything around is like a snow-covered steppe - Life passes like clockwork, Health and business are in order , every day is like a good fairy tale!

But life took a turn into space, where the black earth, asphalt is all arounf, And the black color is everywhere, And the white is hidden in the basalt.

Around are only the walls of the pre-trial detention center and prison Instead of a sweet home. Those who protect you are not around - friends, relatives, close ones, acquaintances...

Life slows down, well-being has disappeared, health worsens bit by bit, Everything you are used to is far away, That you cherished with love until now.

Then there is only one person who can be with you. Support in court, accept complaints, grievances, Provide possible help.

This is a defender, this is an attorney, That rushes into battle like a lioness. For honor, for sincerity, for all that, So that the truth will finally come true here!

Responsible service is carried by an attorney. She's like a sapper on the frontline! And I want to forever wish you victory in difficult work!

The poem was read at the end of the last word in court on August 31, 2022 by the author, Grigoriy Andreevich Kostusev.

"Thanks to people like you, I believe in justice, and strive to become the same"
Hi, I want to write a letter of gratitude to my attorneys who either defended me in court or I met them in court.

Dear AM, AD, DP, MV., I want to thank you for your help, support for me and my friends, for your courage, sincerity and dedication to your work. Thanks to people like you, I believe in justice and strive to become just like you. Thank you so much ❤️

I would like to say special thanks to Ms. Nastassia Lazarenko. I met her in Akrestin's cell. She is so strong and reserved. We sat in the cell in silence for a long time, only then, when she noticed that I was shaking from the cold, Nastya hugged me and cried. It stuck in my memory so much that even as I write it now, I can hardly hold back the tears.

I wish her the moral and physical strength to endure it all. Thank you, Nastya, for everything you did to restore justice in the country. For your sincerity, courage, professionalism and thirst for the truth. I hug you tightly.

People who found themselves in a situation where attorney's help was necessary remember and cherish the human rights defending element of attorneys' activities. Not just a response to a claim, not just a document. An attorney for people is not just an expert in law, but also a person who cannot ignore the violation of rights, who shows and expresses humanity.
In the situation in which the Belarusian society found itself, an attorney becomes not just a legal adviser, but a real human rights defender. The human rights role of the attorney is also noted in the texts sent to us by mail as part of #saythankyoutotheattorney. This was also noticed by the organizers of the human rights award, who awarded N. Matskevich and O. Ageev with the "Human Rights Defender of the Year - 2023" award. It is noteworthy that both of them are disbarred attorneys.

We asked one of the winners of the human rights award - Natalya Matskevich - about the relationship between the concepts of "a human rights defender" and "an attorney" and the importance of the human rights aspect of the defender's activities for clients.
Natalya Matskevich: "The profession of an attorney is constant work of protecting all human rights of your client"

Natalya Matskevich
Attorney deprived of the right to practice in Belarus. Laureate of the "Human Rights Defender of the Year 2023" Award
— On December 10 in Vilnius, at the award ceremony for achievements in 2023, you and Oleg Ageev were presented with an award for winning the "Human Rights Defender of the Year 2023" prize. What is the overall significance of the human rights aspect in advocacy? In the distant past, in the recent past, now? Is the role of an attorney in society changing in general?
— First, it's worth clarifying what the "human rights aspect" is. The axiom is that every person has a set of inalienable rights that the state must guarantee - in accordance with the constitution and international treaties. An attorney is the professional who stands between a person and the state on the platform where it is necessary to remind the state of its obligations and demand their fulfillment. Therefore, the protection of human rights is an obligatory element, the essence of the legal profession in any process where there is a person and a state. That is, the profession of an attorney is not a set of procedural actions and powers prescribed by the code, but also constant work of protecting all the human rights of their client.

And this does not depend on the time period (past, present and future), at least from the moment when humanity, after the Second World War, realized the value of human rights, and the UN General Assembly brought them into the international legal category by adopting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The role of an attorney in society was best formulated by the European Court of Human Rights. In a number of his decisions, it emphasized that an attorney is a central figure in the system of administration of justice, they are an intermediary between the courts and society; and public confidence in the justice system depends on the ability of an attorney to effectively represent the interests of their clients.

But how this works in reality depends, firstly, on whether the attorney has the appropriate competencies and demonstrates this through their actions; secondly, whether they have the ability to fulfill their mission in the system where they work. And if the first depends on the attorney themselves, then the second depends only on whether the state creates conditions and whether it does not interfere with the protection of human rights. Because even if an attorney tries their best to defend the rights of their clients, they do not have the administrative and security resources that a state (that does not respect human rights) can direct against them. And if, while performing ordinary professional actions to protect human rights, an attorney is required to constantly make a choice between the client and their safety, freedom, if the attorney has to show almost heroism (which we cannot demand from people), when faced with systemic opposition, then human rights will still end up left without protection. We saw this in Belarus: in 2020-2021, attorneys proved themselves to be professionals who bravely and competently spoke out in defense of human rights. But the state responded by hitting the legal profession, removing dozens of worthy professionals from it and creating a legal framework where attorneys and the legal profession are deprived of the opportunity to act independently and effectively.
— What is the significance of awarding recent attorneys as human rights defenders in modern conditions? Will such attention to the human rights function, in your opinion, give an impetus for positive changes in the mentality of Belarusian attorneys?
— The very fact of the award only reminds us that the very basis of the attorney's profession is the protection of human rights, and someone's work in this field has been recognized by the Belarusian human rights community.

It's hard for me to say what this can give for Belarusian attorneys. I can only hope that such events bring attention to human rights attorneys, support the preservation of professional dignity among those of their colleagues who still strive to work honestly and conscientiously at home and abroad, and encourage the desire of attorneys to develop their competencies in the field of human rights and provide their knowledge to people.
— We are aware that rewarding attorneys in the future is possible only after certain changes. In addition, it is difficult to imagine any public human rights activities within Belarus that are not sanctioned by the state. Can you guess what will happen next with the Award? To what extent does the presence of key human rights organizations abroad create problems? What formats for assessing achievements may appear?
— I think it's not about the Award. It is hardly correct to count on some kind of Award when working with human rights. What can now be considered an achievement is a matter of the angle from which we look. If you want to see some kind of human rights activity inside Belarus, you won't see it. But if, being here where we find ourselves today, we manage to preserve and build up what can begin the revival of the rule of law and respect for human rights in our home, then this will already be a lot.

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