Belarus suspended on Thursday four lawyers who were defending opposition protesters as the first activist appeared in court on charges of inciting mass riots after a disputed election.
Five former presidential candidates along with 37 other leading opposition activists have been charged with inciting mass riots after tens of thousands protested the December 19 re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko.
As the first trial opened for 28-year-old Vasily Parfenkov, rights activists said they had almost no access to the courtroom, where police in civilian clothing occupied most of the 40 available seats. Parfenkov, who campaigned for opposition leader Vladimir Nekliayev, was arrested on January 4.
A rights activist present in the court room said that Parfenkov told the judge that he took part in the anti-Lukashenko protest but did not smash the glass windows of the parliament building, as the prosecution alleges.
According to the prosecution's claims, Parfenkov took part in causing $4,600 (3,400 Euros) of damage to state property, the activist present at the hearing said in a text message.
With members of the opposition facing a series of trials, four of its lawyers were suspended Thursday in what the activists fear is a move aimed at replacing them with more pliant state-appointed attorneys.
The justice ministry said in a statement that the lawyers, who have defended the jailed candidate Ales Mikhalevich and the recently released reporter Irina Khalip, have committed a series of "blatant violations." The statement added that their clients will have to be "provided with legal support."
"I categorically disagree with the ministry's decision," said Khalip's lawyer Vladimir Tolstik, who was accused of "refusing legal help" to his client.
"I defended her, and there have been no complaints to me from her or her father," he said, adding that he plans to appeal the suspension of his license. The decision essentially bars lawyers from the profession, said rights activist Garry Pogonyailo, himself a former defence lawyer who lost his license.
Appointed lawyers "defend only formally, and very rarely show any enthusiasm" since they work for free for very little pay from the state, Pogonyailo told AFP. -Sapa-AFP