Civil society versus Europe’s last dictator
British lawyers have launched an innovative "prosecution kit" which gives citizens throughout the world the tools to pursue Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko through the courts. Matthew Jury explains PLUS John Kampfner: Arab Spring is a wake-up call for European dictatorship
28 Sep 11

British lawyers have launched an innovative “prosecution kit” which gives citizens throughout the world the tools to pursue Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko through the courts. Matthew Jury explains

For close to two decades Alexander Lukashenko, commonly known as the ‘Last Dictator in Europe’, has stood accused of the torture and abduction of the people of Belarus. Around his fiefdom exists not an iron curtain but iron walls. A barrier behind which, now and on the edges of modern Europe, such crimes go unchallenged, democracy is unknown and the rule of law does not exist. His people have no recourse to their suffering. The totalitarian grip he has on power ensures it. Until today. Today the people of Belarus have sent us, the international community, a message to do what they cannot. Braver still, they have even smuggled us the means to do so.

Over several months, determined and courageous survivors of Lukashenko’s alleged abuses have managed to escape Belarus to testify to what they have suffered. They have done so despite being scattered across Europe, some in hiding and all still fearful for their safety and that of the family and friends they were forced to leave behind. I have taken testimony of horrific beatings, degradation and abuse, of vicious threats and the most awful brutality. In addition, human rights campaigners still in Belarus have risked their lives to provide to us evidence of the Regime’s alleged crimes.

Because of such bravery, we, on their behalf, have been able to produce a “Prosecution Kit” that includes evidence of Lukashenko’s alleged crimes and from which a public or private prosecution can be made anywhere in the world. Through its global open source publication on the Internet, civil society, NGOs, private lawyers and governments worldwide now have immediate access to the materials necessary to seek Lukashenko’s arrest should he travel to their jurisdiction.

Torture is an international crime, the prohibition of which the world’s nations (almost all of which have ratified the Convention Against Torture) are obliged to enforce. Under the Torture Convention, and on our behalf, governments have promised to prosecute anyone who has committed torture who enter their jurisdictions. In reality, state officials accused of torture too often travel freely and with impunity, raising the shield of state immunity whenever and wherever they are challenged. Most shamefully, and in response, our governments, frequently and cowardly, do nothing; abdicating their responsibilities in favour of realpolitik and diplomatic expediency. Undoubtedly, Lukashenko will use the same shield. We say, however, that not only is his Presidency unlawful (recent elections were almost universally condemned, including by the US., EU and the OSCE, for being neither free nor fair) and thus he has no right to state immunity but also that, if the prohibition of torture is to have real teeth, the law cannot retreat when ever state immunity is raised. Having regard to developments within international law and state practice, the issue of state immunity, torture and impunity must be revisited if we are to effectively fulfill the purpose of the Torture Convention and the promises made under it.

The people of Belarus ask the world’s governments to do no more than to fulfill the promise made when they ratified the Torture Convention. However, should they choose to break it and fail in their obligation to prosecute Lukashenko when he enters their country then, where local laws allow (as in many jurisdictions), civil society now also has the tools and materials necessary to enforce the rule of law itself and commence its own private prosecution.

For the first time, this initiative removes the power to prosecute a state official accused of crimes against humanity from the hands of politicians, diplomats and bureaucrats and places it instead into those of civil society.

The people of Belarus, against the odds, have done something incredible. They have done the hard work. All we need do is be diligent in the fulfillment of our promise. That, surely, is the easy part. Moreover, the people of Belarus have given us a gift: a new civil society approach to international justice that may be used to help combat impunity in relation to torture and other international crimes by empowering victims everywhere against despots, war criminals and other human rights offenders. No longer must we wait for our governments to fulfill their duty and enforce the rule of law when we now have the means to do so ourselves.

Lukashenko can now choose to hide behind the walls he has built for himself, a prisoner of his own making, or come out to answer the accusations against him. If innocent, he has nothing to fear for, as long as we choose to enforce it, outside of Belarus at least, the rule of law still prevails.

Today, the people of Belarus ask you for their help in upholding the rule if law. Not just for themselves but for the international community. Please visit to download the Prosecution Kit and consider asking your government to commit to prosecuting Lukashenko should he travel to your jurisdiction or, failing that, preparing your own private prosecution.

Matthew Jury is a partner at McCue & Partners LLP. He is an expert in counter-terrorism litigation, domestic and international human rights law and public international law. McCue & Partners represent a number of opposition Belarusian politicians and campaigners and their families who allege torture and hostage-taking by the Lukashenko Regime