Chronicle of events: Criminal prosecution and detention of lawyer, Maxim Znak
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.

Personal information
Maxim Znak is a 39 year old lawyer from Belarus, and a partner in the law firm Borovtsov and Salei BIS. He has a PhD in jurisprudence, and also holds a Master's degree in business administration (Kozminski University, Warsaw, Poland). He is a lecturer at the Department of Law of the Belarusian State University, and the teacher of the course ‘Legal environment of business’ as part of the MBA programme at Belarusian State University. He has been a legal professional since 2001, and a licenced lawyer since 2013. He is listed in international ratings and reference books (in particular, The Chambers Guide, Legal 500, IFLR1000, and Who’s Who Legal).

On 8 May 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 12 May 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 20 May 2020, the Central Commission on Elections and Republican Referenda (CER) registered Babariko’s presidential candidacy campaign group.

On 28 May 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 12 June 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 18 June 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 20 June 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 14 July 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 14 July 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 9 August 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 10 August 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 14 August 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 18 August 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 18 August 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 19 August 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 21 August 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.

Harassment of political opponents
Within a short time, members of the Presidium of the Coordination Council were targeted.

Lilia Vlasova, a well-known lawyer and international mediator, was detained on 31 August 2020; the Department of Financial Investigations initiated a criminal case against her on tax evasion, and the investigation is being conducted behind closed doors.

Pavel Latushko, former head of the Yanka Kupala National Academic Theater, was dismissed from his job for his civil position, and on 2 September 2020 was forced to leave Belarus due to the threat of criminal prosecution.

Sergei Dylevsky, the leader of the strike committee of the Minsk Tractor Plant, and Olga Kovalkova, a confidant of Tikhanovskaya, were detained on 24 August and on 25 August. They were subjected to 10 days of administrative arrest for participating in an unauthorised meeting and disobeying the demands of a police officer. On 3 September, for repeated participation in an unauthorised meeting, they were each sentenced for another 15 days. On 5 September, Kovalkova was released from the temporary detention center, where she was serving her arrest, and forcibly transported to the border of Belarus with Poland and deported from Belarus without legal grounds.

On 7 September 2020, Maria Kolesnikova, coordinator of Babariko’s headquarters and one of the leaders of Tikhanovskaya’s election campaign, was abducted by unknown people in Minsk. On 8 September, the authorities announced that she was detained while crossing the border with Ukraine. On 9 September, it became clear that Kolesnikova was detained due to the criminal case under Part 3 of Art. 361 of the Criminal Code, and that the day before she was kidnapped by law enforcement officers, forcibly taken to the border and, resisting forced expulsion from the country, tore her passport up in order to stay in Belarus.
On 7 September, 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 9 September 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 9 September, Belarusian lawyers made an open statement regarding the detention of their colleagues.

On 9 September, 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.

10 September 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 11 September, 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 15 September, 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 18 September, 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 24 September and 25 November, 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 22 October 2020, an appeal was sent to the Belarusian authorities from the American Bar Association in support of Znak.

9 November 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 16 November 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 22 December 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”.

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

19 January 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.

25 January 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.

Legal opinion regarding the detention of Maxim Znak
The circumstances under which Znak has been prosecuted as a criminal and detained qualifies as arbitrary, contrary to the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus and Articles 9, 17, 19, 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights on the following grounds:

1) Lawyer Maxim Znak is deprived of personal freedom as a punishment for exercising professional duties, for the exercise of the rights guaranteed in accordance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: the right to freedom of expression (Article 19), freedom of association (Article 22), and the rights to privacy, including the right to a profession (Article 17). Znak’s detention cannot be recognised as an admissible restriction of these rights, since nothing in the circumstances of the case indicates that the restriction was applied to prevent a real threat to the values protected by the Constitution and the Covenant, but applied in order to silence the lawyer who is defending democratic principles and human rights.
2) Znak’s detention is unacceptable, unfair, and unreasonable and is unnecessary for legitimate investigative purposes such as preventing escape, interfering in the process of gathering evidence, or recidivism.
3) During Znak’s detention, the procedural guarantee established by paragraph 3 of Art. 9 of the Covenant was not obeyed, as Znak was not immediately brought before a judge or other official who has the right to exercise judicial power by law.

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