Interview with attorney Natalia Matskevich: "When everything around destroys dignity, attorney does not let it be destroyed"

Attorney Natalia Matskevich, known for defending Siarhei Tikhanouski and Viktar Babariko, recently gave an interview to Current Time.

Disbarred in the autumn of 2021, Natalia spoke about her fears of detention following the onset of political arrests in May 2020: “I was terrified of being detained, it was something I didn't want at all. There were times I carried my toothbrush with me. It was the end of July [2020], just before the elections, when the Wagners came to Belarus and were detained. There were claims they were invited to instigate mass riots by Tikhanovsky and Statkevich. And my simple human logic suggests that both had been in pre-trial detention for a long time. Tikhanovsky [my client] had been in jail since May, with no contact except with jailers and attorneys. It made no logical sense – so, who really invited them? I was anxiously anticipating my name emerging in these accusations.”

And yet, Natalia, her husband Victor – also a disbarred attorney – and their children remained in Belarus until July 2023. “We left on July 10, 2023, flying to Batumi. We tried to keep up, but the combination of pressing needs and threats eventually forced [us to leave]. <...> As long as Victor remained in the profession, leaving wasn't an option. But once he lost his licence, it became clear we couldn't progress further. Teaching and research demand freedom of expression – you can't educate in silence or publish research without it. When I was coming back from Vilnius again and when they took me to the office at the border for an interview, checked my phone and asked me questions, I realised I couldn’t endure such a regime.”

As for the current situation with attorneys, Natalia expresses her fear that those detained as a result of political persecution remain without effective legal assistance: "Now the trouble in Belarus is that this group of people, who are persecuted for expressing their opinion, for participating in peaceful assemblies, are left without attorneys. Because the legal corps has seen what has happened to those attorneys, who actively defended such rights, and in most cases they refuse to take such cases. Or they take them only if they are appointed. And this means that they are not responsible under the contract to the relatives, to the person himself. Those who still take [such cases voluntarily] are very few, they are already exhausted by this endless race and walking all the time on the edge, the premonition that tomorrow you will be removed, even I will say — certainty".

Regarding the current state of attorneys in Belarus, Natalia voices her concerns about those detained due to political persecution being left without effective legal assistance: “The real trouble in Belarus now is that people persecuted for expressing their opinions or participating in peaceful protests are left without attorneys. The legal community has seen what happened to attorneys who actively defended these rights. Most now refuse such cases, or only take them when appointed, which means they're not accountable under contract to the relatives or the individuals themselves. The few who voluntarily take on these cases are exhausted by this endless race, constantly running a race on the edge, constantly walking on glass with a looming premonition – or rather, a certainty – of being next to be removed.'

Read the full interview at the link.
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